A deadly explosion in a Chinese methamphetamine lab kicks of a chain reaction of events when the sole survivor, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), tries to speed to safety but is so dazed from the accident that he crashes his car into a city restaurant. Upon awakening, he is interrogated by Captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei), head of the local drug unit. Zhang is already on the tail of a truck filled with supplies he can connect to Timmy, but Timmy offers to help bust his superiors instead of the death penalty (the Chinese sentence for manufacturing more than 50 grams of meth). Zhang Lei and his officers quickly arrange for an undercover sting operation that could pay off in the arrest of one of the most well-known drug kingpins in China...if Timmy is telling the truth.
Reviewing Drug War is a bit of a challenge: this is a stripped-down, streamlined experience in the best sense of the word. The plot's not particularly elaborate, despite plenty of detail about the characters and their relationship to one another. There are quite a few characters, as well, but all that really matters in the end is which side everyone's on. The pleasures of the film, by veteran crime director Johnnie To, are simple: this is a pure, unfettered blast of cop movie thrills, and all To does is sit the viewer in the center of the game and have them watch as it all plays out, step by step.
At the heart of the picture, To's focus is on two men. The first, Captain Zhang Lei, is commitment personified. Lei is straightforward, the kind of man who decides what to do in 30 seconds or less and does it without hesitation. Without any other characters limply explaining his history as a police officer, To communicates everything the viewer needs to know about Lei's style and work ethic. In a dazzling sequence, Lei poses as two different people in two subsequent meetings. At first, it seems as if he's simply going with "less is more," but when the second meeting begins, it's clear that it's little more than research, and that his memory and observational skills are sharp as a tack. Honglei dives into this role with exactly the right amount of relish, keeping his hunger for the arrest beneath the surface.
The other man, Timmy Choi, is intentionally harder to read. When Lei threatens him with a death sentence, Choi quickly breaks. He appears nervous, but moves with the same decisiveness as Lei. When Lei encounters a problem involving meth, Choi doesn't hesitate to give Lei the information needed to save his life, despite Lei's fellow officers slamming him into a table and wrestling cuffs onto his wrist. Choi explains the business meetings he's taken and the nature of his operation with great candidness, but there's quite a bit of wiggle room for there to be something up his sleeve. Koo's performance is wonderful, intriguing yet never quite readable. At one point, he cries unexpectedly, and the mind reels with the possibilities.
The balancing act of a film like this, one which relies on a long build-up to a large pay-off, is a tricky one that many directors struggle with. To expertly includes just enough action and excitement throughout the film to keep things fresh and interesting before true chaos erupts, and when it does, it's a stunning, bloody onslaught of bullets that To orchestrates with a fluidity and elegance that many American directors couldn't even dream of. Drug War isn't really a particularly deep or insightful experience, and the final beat that To chooses to go out on doesn't quite feel right in execution, but those looking for a top-notch thriller will be more than satisfied by this low-key masterpiece.
Drug War gets one of the most stylish Blu-Ray covers of the year, depicting Louis Koo, hair dyed, shirt splotches glowing, in front of a pitch black background and eye-catching purple smoke emanating from his mouth. The only thing that could make the disc stand out more is if they'd slapped it in a Blu-Ray case to match the smoke (alas, you'll have to do with a standard blue eco-Vortex case). The disc slides into a glossy slipcover featuring the same art, with an embossed title logo, and there is a leaflet advertising other WellGo USA titles.
The Video and Audio
Drug War's 2.35:1 1080p AVC presentation is curiously underwhelming, in a way. It's not that there are any issues with the picture, per se -- no obvious artifacting or banding marring the image -- but something about the original photography of the film is a bit soft and hazy, lacking an amount of saturation and detail that would fully remind the viewer this is a high-definition transfer. IMDb notes that the film was shot on 35mm, but the image is curiously lacking in noticeable grain. Not sure if there's anything truly wrong with this presentation, but it doesn't pop the way one might expect it to.
A DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track is a little better than the picture, showing a lively and well-balanced range, if never quite blowing the doors off. During the film's slow-burn first half, there's not much but ambience and dialogue for the track to juggle, while tension-building music fills in the soundscape. Later, however, there are a number of high-powered shoot-outs that bring the track to life with plenty of directionality and excitement. A Chinese 2.0 track and English subtitles are also provided.
Disappointingly, none, other than an original theatrical trailer. A WellGo USA promo and trailers for Ip Man: The Final Fight, The Guillotines, and New World play before the main menu.
Although the presentation is curiously subdued and the disc lacks a documentary or audio commentary to go deeper into To's vision, this brutal thriller takes the basics of the crime genre and makes them crackle with energy again. Highly recommended.
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