Movie Journal
J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

MOVIE JOURNAL: J. Hoberman on movies and movie-related things

Alt Summer Action: Johnnie To’s “Drug War”

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“Drug War,” HK action master Johnnie To’s first mainland production, is as terse and straightforward as its title — although not without out its choreographed twists.

An alternative summer action film opening at the IFC Center on July 26, and possibly China’s first cinematic dope opera, “Drug War” starts strong with a crazed crystal meth manufacturer (To regular Louis Koo) losing control of his innards and his car and winding up in the custody of a super-cool narcotics cop (mainland star Sun Honglei), with whom he is forced to cooperate in order to save his life. Evidently the Chinese penal code makes manufacturing methamphetamine a capital offense.

Because it was filmed in China, mainly around the southern city Tianjin, “Drug War” is (slightly) less violent than the usual To drama. Basically, it’s a streamlined non-stop police procedural — set over a three-day period — that careens from set piece to set piece. These include an elaborate toll-booth bust, a raid on a giant fortified meth factory staffed by deaf-mutes, a buy and bust staged in Tianjin’s huge harbor, an elaborate sting in which the cop has to impersonate a gangster referred to as Brother Ha-Ha for his nervous tic, and a number of elaborate automobile maneuvers that include what’s sometimes called a Chinese fire drill.

Cars are big. In its way, “Drug War” is an impacted road movie. As cops and criminals duel to the death, a big green truck filled with meth and piloted by a pair of stoned drivers plows through China towards the prolonged final shoot-out, which involves a massive traffic jam and erases most of the cast while leaving Koo’s drug-lord turned informer playing both sides right down to the end.

Image: Well Go USA/Variance Films

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