"Drug War" opens up with a shot of smog hanging over mainland China. Before long we’ve met Tommy Choi (Louis Koo), a high-level drug smuggler, and Captain Zhang, the cop who busted him -- and who now runs him as an undercover. Over the course of the next 100 minutes, the former will drag the latter through the increasingly intricate web of the drug trade: From the crew of deaf men and women who helped him efficiently cook up tons of amphetamines, to the crooks who helped him sell it, to the criminal godfathers of Hong Kong who would collect the profits.
Johnnie To directed the movie. He’s the best filmmaker working today whom you’ve never heard of. Recently, he’s begun the move from Hong Kong to mainland China, which is what makes "Drug War" all the more incredible. This kind of bullets-and-bloodshed action is commonplace in Hong Kong, but in China, it has to be worked around strenuous censors, watching for transgressions both ’moral’ and political. So To’s film, technically, can’t question the moral fiber of the police, nor can it question the veracity of strict laws that send a man to death for a drug offense. But the multilayered meaning of the title alone should be enough to tell you that he does those things anyway.
Eventually, Choi gets dragged into an undercover operation, forcing him to lead Zhang and the cops all the way to the aforementioned godfathers. Now, some directors have archetypal characters they like to play around with, but To has an archetypal team. In films such as "Exiled" and "The Mission" he’s glorified gangs of past-their-prime criminals, sprinting to their ends with guns blazing. Here, the seven crime lords fill that role. His quietly kinetic Cinemascope framing tracks the busts to an almost fetishistic detail; studying the police and the criminals through all of their ever-elaborate processes. And then it breaks down (in ways I wouldn’t dare reveal), and everyone shoots each other.
But the action takes on a sense of almost-existential despair. In those past films, To could turn his men into myths, he could make his antiheroes larger than life. Not here, not with the censors. And so they feel more like animals in a zoo, trapped by his frames, by the hypocrisies of themselves and their country, doomed to a bloody end. To’s worked around the censors by imbuing his societal criticism into the mood and tone of the piece, rather than the text. Yes, the bad guys all get wiped out, that goes without saying. But the smog isn’t going anywhere.