REVIEW: 毒戰 [Du zhan] [Drug War] [2013]

Score: 7/10 | ★ ★ ★

Rating: R | Runtime: 107 minutes | Release Date: April 4th, 2013 (China)
Studio: Lark Films Distribution / Well Go USA Entertainment / Cinedigm Entertainment Group
Director(s): Johnnie To
Writer(s): Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau & Xi Yu

“Bad for the brain. Hahaha.”

The first action film prolific Hong Kong director Johnnie To shot exclusively in Mainland China shows that locale has little to do with his ability to achieve the level of entertainment international audiences expect. 毒戰 [Du zhan] [Drug War] sticks with the gangster genre he’s most associated with by pitting an undercover narcotics police force against drug kingpin Uncle Bill (Zhenqi Li). Involved in a multi-faceted sting operation, cops from Jinhai, Yuejiang, and Erzhou join together after syndicate general Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is captured thanks to his passing out and crashing into a public restaurant courtesy of injuries sustained during a lab explosion. Not wanting to be sentenced to death in accordance with China’s strict anti-drug laws, he agrees to help Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun) take down his outfit for leniency.

On paper it all sounds rather generic, but its orchestration proves anything but as Zhang must dupe two nefarious criminals into believing he is both of them. You see, while Timmy was lying in a hospital bed recovering from burns and poisoning, his dimwitted truck drivers carrying new supplies for an Erzhou lab run by a pair of mute cooks (Tao Guo and Jing Li) were riding in circles and getting stoned waiting to hear if a new deal he was setting up between port magnate Haha (Ping Hao) and Bill’s coked-out nephew Chang (Kai Tan) was complete. Since neither party had met the other yet, Timmy takes Zhang to meet them as though he is the other so that an elaborate plan to arrest them all can be put into action.

What results is an exciting scene wherein Zhang and Timmy enter their hotel meeting place so that the police Captain can act like a stone-faced cokehead middleman for Haha’s exuberant jokester of an entrepreneur. The exchange readies the businessman to fulfill his side of the agreement while also giving Zhang a taste of the personality and mannerism he’ll need to cultivate for his conference with the real Chang. This second meet-up doesn’t go quite as planned due to Bill’s nephew’s unpredictable, bullying nature, but Timmy does prove his worth as an informant by getting the deal made despite an potentially deadly hiccup. With Bill, Chang, and Haha now on the hook, Zhang gains full control over the situation with only Timmy proving a wild card capable of double-crossing their relationship in order to escape custody.

Scripted by Ryker Chan, Ka-Fai Wai, Nai-Hoi Yau, and Xi Yu, the film possesses a sprawling cast of characters that can be a bit troublesome to keep straight at times. Between Zhang pretending to be two separate people who also exist as themselves; Timmy playing his captors’ game while also still working with his homicidal cooks, idiot messengers, Uncle Bill, and a contingent of even more drug lords to be introduced later; undercover cops from each city including two tireless officers from Yuejiang who have been tracking the supply truck for over a day straight (Wallace Chung‘s Guo and Guangjie Li‘s Chen) and Zhang’s right-hand man (Gao Yunxiang’s Xiang) and woman (Yi Huang‘s Xiaobei) from Jinhai, it can appear like a chaotic circus of expendable lives just waiting for the other show to drop.

Such a thought isn’t wrong either as Drug War brings its title to life with an extended climactic gunfight on an elementary school’s street to prove how heroes and villains are equally mortal when face-to-face with the barrel of a gun in the hands of someone who wants nothing more than to kill their mark. It’s a brilliant sequence that finally shines light on where Timmy’s allegiances lie and the selfishness inherent to anyone caught in a life or death situation with no friends on either side. To shows us the bloody carnage that results from the drug trade and its innocent collateral damage in the name of a quick buck. There’s suspenseful espionage, high-octane action, and effective drama placed squarely on the shoulders of Zhang and Timmy’s tenuous relationship neither fully trusts.

But while the number of characters proves daunting with their complex attempts at trickery, the plot itself remains rather simple in comparison. You know who the good guys and bad guys are, appreciate Zhang’s commitment to his profession—due to Sun’s fantastic, chameleon-like performance—and figure Timmy has a grand plan yet to be revealed as Koo steals scenes with his ability to switch between highly emotional (in response to those dead from the lab explosion he survived) and calmly calculating (in search of an escape). To utilizes surveillance footage for another layer of authenticity as the police burrow deeper into the cartel’s ranks and never fears the shock value of brutally murdering anyone the story needs dead for its natural progression. Neither masterpiece nor wholly original—Drug War is a solid crime drama with mass appeal.

Released 10/15 on Amazon, Xbox, iTunes, Playstation, CinemaNow, Vudu, Google Play, Youtube, Cable VOD, and Blu-Ray / DVD (through Well Go USA).

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