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.
The Video and Audio
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.