ReviewWriter: Elaine EweWriter Ratings:Overall: Cast: Plot: Effects: Cinematography: Watch this if you liked:
“Election”, “Sparrow” and “Life Without Principle”
After premiering at the Rome International Film Festival to positive reviews, "Drug War" is on the fast track to becoming one of those small-budget films that is 'cool', as opposed to the mainstream "Cold War", directed by Kim-ching Luk and Longmond Leung Lok-Man. The question is no longer 'does it lives up to the hype?', but becomes 'how accessible is it for mainstream audiences?' because it is common knowledge that the critics' pet does not make it 'Film of The Year', much like Hollywood's "Cloud Atlas". The answer is a tentative yes, as it may be a little slow for action fanatics.
Hong Kong maestro Johnnie To proves that he still has what it takes as a filmmaker, as "Drug War" echoes his previous visceral gangster flicks such as "Election", "Sparrow" and "Life Without Principle", minus the numerous action scenes. That said, the film is nothing Johnnie To fans have not seen before, but it serves as a worthy introduction for the Chinese director to a new market.
Shot and set in mainland China, namely, the Jinshan district, "Drug War" tells the story of Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a drug manufacturer who comes into police custody after his car crashes into a restaurant due to a drug overdose. In an attempt to avoid the death penalty, Timmy pleads with police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) to take part in an undercover operation aimed at his own gang, which soon escalates into Timmy betraying his former accomplices one by one. It all seems simple enough, but Timmy just cannot seem to make up his mind about his allegiances...
Once again, Louis Koo is type casted into a role where he is a fickle-minded individual, but the actor proves that acting is not just being casted into varying roles, it is about doing the best he can with what he gets. A competent script coupled with his powerful performance as Timmy has the audience constantly questioning his ulterior motives, a plot device that keeps us intrigued throughout the film's second act. In contrast, Sun Honglei as Zhang is a stern, inflexible and dedicated officer of the law. However, unlike most directors, Johnnie To creates a situation where his actors have to 'act', which Sun Honglei does with the utmost virtuosity as he flits between that and the dumb, guffawing gangster whose identity he is impersonating for the operation. Together, they are a well-matched pair as they are not trying to out act each other, which tend to happen in films with duo leads when one is a bigger star.
In addition to the fine acting of its lead, the film is impeccably choreographed. Johnnie To relies on craft over CGI, as the film only goes full-throttle in the third act, spending time trying to get under the audience's skin during the first two halves. The washed out colour palette and energetic soundtrack help to maintain this unsettling atmosphere surrounding the cat-and-mouse game. It is understandable that the film received a similar backlash to that of Danny Boyle's "Slumdog Millionaire", but from mainland China, because the sights from Johnnie To's camera is not pretty. Lively, yes, but not pretty, but in light of the film's subject matter, its lack of opulence lends the film an authenticity and credibility that Johnnie To's breath-taking "Romancing In Thin Air" lacks.
In spite of its brilliant craftsmanship, the film fails to hold up till the third act, and descends into pure horror. The horror is torn between the events unfolding on the screen and the fates that Johnnie To has divined for his characters, as if he has no idea what to do with them. Although it is commendable that the final shootout abandons stylish high-speed car chases in favour of an ugly yet nail-biting sequence by enclosing the participants in a wide-open space, quite literally, as anyone who tries to make a getaway with a car is shot down, it raises questions as to how shots can miss and creates an opening for shouts of laughter similar to the feeling of watching women having a catfight in a toilet or in a school hallway.
Despite its final act, "Drug War" is an engaging cinematic recipe by Johnnie To that demonstrates that solid gritty gangster movies can still be done well, and that a couple of bad apples such as Wong Jing's "Young And Dangerous: Reloaded" and "The Last Tycoon" do not spoil the whole basket. It may be light on action, but it is laden with masterful acting, scripting and choreography. Overall, "Drug War" is a rare combo of social commentary and stylistic escapism whose final act must be forgiven considering its many merits.Cinema Online, 16 April 2013