Well Go USA // 2012 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Gordon Sullivan // October 10th, 2013
High risk. High return.
It's no secret that the Hong Kong action film of the 1980s revitalized American action films in the 1990s. Aside from giving us stars like Chow Yun-fat and Jackie Chan, American directors increasingly looked to the style of Hong Kong flicks for inspiration. Hong Kong directors, however, tended to fare a little less well with American audiences, with even the revered John Woo having trouble making films that worked for the U.S. market as well as his Hong Kong originals. Though film production in Hong Kong doesn't have the sway over international hearts that it once did, the island is still producing action films, and one of its most famous sons is Johnnie To. His film Drug War doesn't find him abandoning Hong Kong for the United States. Instead he travels to mainland China to craft a story of meth-dealing gone wrong. It's an interesting take on the cop/criminal dynamic, but it might be too slow for To's fans and too different for American viewers.
In China, meth possession is taken seriously. So seriously, in fact, that the amount you can carry on your person can earn you a death sentence. That puts high-level dealer Choi (Louis Koo, Election) in a nasty position when he's busted after a car accident. In exchange for his life, he agrees to help aggressive detective Captain Zhang (Sun Honglai, Shanghai Red) infiltrate the meth trade as Choi turns on his former associates. They've got forty-eight hours to seal the deal, but trust proves difficult as tensions run high.
For viewers completely new to the world of HK action films, especially those directed by Johnnie To, Drug War will be an interesting experience. Americans, especially, have a particular affinity for the crime/drug flick, and Drug War fits into that world pretty easily. We've got the likable drug dealer trying to save his skin, the no-nonsense cop, and their temporary compromise. It's been played for laughs in films like 48 Hrs., but here's it's deadly serious. Those new to the genre might be disappointed by the more character-driven nature of this film, which runs a healthy 107 minutes with only a few major action set pieces.
However, those with a bit more knowledge of Johnnie To's filmography and Chinese films in particular can admire the sheer genius of what To has pulled off. First, we should get the problems out of the way: those expecting Election or Exiled will be disappointed. The world of cynical hit men and quipping gangsters just won't fly in the film culture of mainland China. To get access to the budget and locations for Drug War, To had to also submit to Chinese censorship (for want of a better word) -- and there's no way he could get away with showing a positive meth dealer.
In response to his mainland situation, To chose to jettison the hit men and gangsters for a detailed look at the Chinese drug trade. Instead, he kept his obsession with power struggles and time limits, but shifted the focus to a race between drug dealers and drug cops. Out of the limitations of Chinese censorship, To builds a story that pits cops against dealers, but the twist is that he doesn't paint in black-and-white. The cops are all rules-obsessed robots who will seemingly stop at nothing to bring criminals down. The criminals are slightly less robotic, but also willing to do all kinds of nasty things to bring their products to market. More importantly, To explorers the world of these characters with a clear and consistent plot that slowly brings viewers into the world of Chinese meth dealing.
Of course there's still action in To's film. Though it's not as flashy as earlier films like Election, Drug War still sets up a complicated plan of undercover infiltration. Unsurprisingly, this plan leads to violence. Much of the film is given over to mood-setting and character development, but when the plot requires action, To steps up and delivers the goods in ways that his fans have come to expect.
Drug War (Blu-ray) gets an excellent presentation. The 1.78:1/1080p AVC-encoded transfer looks great throughout. The film's subdued color scheme is well-presented, with lots of blues and grays, while detail also remains strong from close-ups on the actors to wide shots of the landscape. Black levels stay consistent and deep, and compression artefacts aren't ever a problem. The DTS-HD 5.1 track is excellent as well. Dialogue is clean and clear throughout, and the surrounds get a lot of use during the action sequences. Balance is fine, despite the gunfire and other loud noises, with dynamic range kept high throughout.
Some previews for other films are included, but the only Drug War-specific extra on this disc is the film's theatrical trailer.
I've seen some complain that Drug War isn't as good as some of To's earlier features. I'm not sure I buy that, but I can see that Drug War is different, largely because of the restrictions of the Chinese market. We can argue about whether To should take Chinese funding to make his movies, but what's clear is that he's done an amazing job working under those restrictions. Fans might not want to take the leap with him, but it's clear that To knows what he's doing.
Fans could also ask for a bit more in the extras department. I like having the trailer, but a behind-the-scenes featurette would be nice, especially if it covered the making of the final shootout.
Now that Breaking Bad is over, American viewers might want to see how other countries handle their meth problem. If Drug War is anything to go by, the world of Walter White is a playground by comparison. Though longtime fans of Johnnie To's brand of Hong Kong action might be disappointed by his turn to Chinese funding and locations, those willing to appreciate the very specific context of Chinese filmmaking will find a crime thriller strong in mood and characterization. The well-presented Drug War (Blu-ray) is easy to recommend for a rental.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go USA
* 1.78:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (Chinese)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2012
MPAA Rating: Rated R
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