With crime thriller Drug War, Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To marks his first film production to be shot and set in mainland China.

Face pockmarked with chemical burns after fleeing a meth lab explosion that killed his wife and two brothers-in-law, mid level meth manufacturer Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) begs narcotics detective and master of disguise Captain Zhang (Sun Hongle) to spare him from the death penalty if he brings in his superiors. (As noted in the film’s press materials, manufacturing fifty grams of meth is all it takes for the death penalty to be enacted in China.) Timmy’s reptilian sense of self-preservation leads the slapdash police detail into a series of undercover intelligence operations over the course of 72 hours.

Those expecting wall to wall gunfights are going to have to wait a while, with a full hour passing before the first rounds are fired. In the meantime, Drug War gets to demonstrate its greatest strength: crafting palpable moment-to-moment dread during its cat and mouse undercover operations. Most notably, a scene early in the film, shortly after Timmy has been ‘turned,’ wherein Zhang and Timmy have to conduct the same meeting between two different drug dealers, back to back, with Zhang impersonating the opposite party as Timmy remains in the middle, trying to keep it on the level.

At one hour and forty-seven minutes, To trims the fat that bloats many of these type of genre films. Fat, like characterizations of its police and criminal element (no shots of anybody’s domestic life here) or telegraphed-from-Mars melodramatic monologues about duty, honor, family, brotherhood, or whatever the theme du jour is. The characters, from the detectives to the gangsters, are defined by what they do, leaving no room for moral ambiguity. The utilitarian nature of the narrative and its characters makes Drug War move at an efficient pace, up until the end of the second act, when the introduction of various drug cartel members fractured whatever narrative coherence the film had. And not in the, ‘whoa, I thought this movie was one thing, and it turned out to be something else!’ way either.

…Not like it totally mattered anyway. For all its tense moments, there isn’t much in the way of narrative payout (hidden cameras planted are just hidden cameras planted, junkie truck drivers transporting meth raw materials are just junkie truck drivers transporting meth raw materials, etc), which may or may not be a symptom of its stripped down story. Aside from a fatalistic coda, the last twenty minutes completely pumps the brakes on the narrative in order to make way for the crown jewel Drug War: a twenty minute shootout between police and cartel members in front of a primary school.

Compare and contrast to, let’s say, John Woo’s The Killer or Hard Boiled, the gunplay in Drug War is largely quaint and staid. Like the police work that front loaded the film, it is unsentimental and unromantic in the best, most refreshing way possible.

The action is largely fought with pistols (not much in the way of double-fisting berettas, or fully automatic weapons, here), and death defying acrobatics are traded for hunkering down behind car doors. The combatants (the police detail and drug cartel) are within meters of each other, positioned as if on a chess board of mini vans and sedans. All the faces start to blur as the body count begins to rise. When the action is over, there are no doves, there is no opera.

Drug War is stripped down genre that’s meant to propel.

Drug War opens today in San Francisco at the Four Star Theatre and AMC Metreon 16.

the author

Paolo Sambrano adores television theme songs. You can follow him on Twitter @paolo. He is the creator of the card game, No Benefits and the writer/performer of the solo show Bi-Poseur.

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