There’s a particularly arresting moment in the beginning of Drug War in which two loud stoners driving a truck stop at a highway toll. The female clerk looks directly at them before turning to the other side of the booth, where another two exhausted-looking (if better-dressed) men thrust money at her, clearly in a hurry. We see two tight close-ups from her perspective, zooming in on two empty cups of ramen and a bottle of what looks like beer on the ground. Are they doped-out, too? She gives them the same discerning gaze, but lets both cars pass, cutting her off as they move ahead. On to the next one.
Such a stark and paranoid double exchange, if minor to the plot, is nevertheless a shrewd metronome for a film that consistently favors direct action and movement over metaphor. Drug War’s cast of cops and criminals perform a relentless and exhausting series of tasks to gain the upper hand, co-opting each other in an endless struggle. There’s no time for poetry in a film where everything’s expendable: after she witnesses an oncoming confrontation half a minute away, that clerk is never seen again. But in a sense, she is director Johnnie To’s surrogate, making a logical match of point A with point B and then moving on to the next problem set. Single-minded but never monotonous, the film’s many carefully observed and highly practical exchanges invite the viewer to work intuitively, as well, making Drug War a constant pleasure to watch beyond its deftly choreographed setpieces and refined visual style. In other words, it’s a genre film with a rhythm and forward momentum that are inseparable from its subject, and it’s masterful stuff.
It isn’t long before the characters settle into more clearly defined roles, though we know very little about their personal lives. Upon his pursuit and capture of a drug mule who, after introduced, we never see again, the impossibly stoic detective Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei) moves on to interrogate drug lord Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), whose family recently died in an accidental factory explosion. Acting out of either latent penance or budding retirement — the film opens with his brutal near-death sequence — Timmy agrees to help Zhang and his crack team infiltrate his seemingly endless business network of pushers over the course of 72 hours, with aptly idiosyncratic results. One of them, a kingpin named Haha, punctuates nearly every verbal exchange with laughter. In another scene, two mute brothers function as Timmy’s closest aides, as he confides his recent loss through proficient sign language(!).
These brothers — just two of the film’s many sets of character doubles — eventually reveal themselves as expert gunslingers, and it becomes clear that Drug War is less about red herrings than pervious barriers. Even Zhang is ready to play any role necessary to his immediate situation; when tasked with impersonating Haha in the face of another culprit, he performs with gusto, snorting so much coke he nearly reaches cardiac arrest. In such desperate measures, one may wonder where the line is drawn between pursuer and pursued, but To’s determined formalism makes this dance overtly clear. His surveillance-speed cutaways and cascading tracking shots belie the urgency of police work as much as its redundancies, with his blank-slate personages always caught in a grand procedural machine. It’s always business, even when the film’s propulsive energy coupled with To’s incredibly precise filmmaking can seem self-cancelling.
Such a tight operation couldn’t possibly end well, but our distance from the procedural thrust of Drug War makes it all the more recognizable as a class act. The discernible lack of exposition or clear delineation of character psychology typical of Western crime dramas may be partly attributed to the film’s status as a Mainland China production, which endured a regime of strict censorship. Yet director Johnnie To, arguably the most respected genre filmmaker in Hong Kong, is known for crafting taut and formally inventive triad dramas (The Mission, Election 1 & 2) and actioners (Exiled), with which Drug War shares in common an unusual purity and rugged grace. Strained for excess and painstakingly crafted, Drug War always feels one step ahead, and its naked ambitions and expert follow-through make it a benchmark for crime cinema.