Johnnie To’s Drug War (2012) is one of those great cinematic cases of having your cake and eating it too. On one hand, you have To bringing his decades of experience making Hong Kong action films to bear on this project. On the other hand, we find ourselves on the ground floor of an exciting new phase of To’s career. This is his first action collaboration with mainland China and what an auspicious beginning it is. There are all the requisite flying bullets and twists and turns, but this time To is creatively weaving those in the margins left to him by Chinese censors. Much the way that some of Hollywood’s best stories were told with a wink during the time of the Hays code, To employs that same cleverness and attaches it to this ice cold rocket of an anti-procedural.
It’s those same qualities that I think make Drug War an excellent entry in To’s catalog for longtime fans and neophytes alike. There’s never a lack of compelling action. It moves like lightning, so it’s easy to get caught up in, no matter your experience level. At any moment, To could take the genre conventions we are used to and turn them inside out. He even keeps old genre hands on their toes with his inversions and doubling down. The sly subtext slipping through the censors’ fingers? That’s just the icing on the bullet-riddled cake. Whether you are coming at this wide-eyed, or you think you’ve seen it all before, Johnnie To has something up his sleeve for all of you!
What you’ll find in this episode: Zero tolerance for drugs, extreme tolerance for violence, doubling up, doubling down, and China as To’s new frontier.
Links and Recommendations:
Check out Drug War on IMDB.
Ericca’s further viewing pick of The Mission.
Cole’s further viewing pick of Election.
Johnnie To’s top ten films.
An evaluation of China’s anti-drug efforts.