Many of Hong Kong action master Johnnie To’s films feel like westerns, and "Drug War" is one of them. Even though he’s never made a "proper" entry in the genre, his film is littered with the genre’s hallmarks: He’s constantly displayed an obsession with past-their-prime outlaws, surviving in a world that’s quickly passing them by, watching as they live life down to their last bullet. Normally, it’s an angry boss, a vindictive cop, or a partnership-gone-bad that drives them to the edge. In this case, it’s simply the law. His picture suggests - and, admirably, never states outright - that draconian drug laws have turned today’s dealers into the modern equivalent of the duel-to-the-death outlaws mythologized by year’s past.
To follows Timmy Choi, a drug dealer who specializes in manufacturing tons of methamphetamines, as he’s arrested and begins work as an informant for the Chinese police force. His assignment lasts three days and leaves a pile of bodies a mile high. In China, manufacturing any more than 50 grams of meth will earn you the death penalty - so Choi’s on the hook for as long as the cuffs are still on him.
Honglei Sun features as a hard-nosed captain who drives Choi to inform on his pals, and has no problem pushing him all the way to the end of the line: that being a climactic, third-act shootout that pulls together the many strands of the drug trade - pushers, manufacturers, cops and kingpins - and leaves them in the middle of the streets to fight things out.
There’s a lot that’s amazing about this film: the sheer economy of the editing and shot compositions, which slowly parcel out information without any need for spoken exposition; the reserved performances that refuse to betray the character’s internal emotions; the masterly pace, which builds symphonically to the all-encompassing carnage that completes the picture. Yet most impressive of all is the approach To takes as a result of needing to adhere to the censorship placed on Chinese cinema.
Instead of producing propaganda for drug laws or against them, he simply refuses to editorialize: even as the shootouts ratchet up the tension and thrills, his gaze remains level, even, and completely detached from the emotions displayed by the characters. He doesn’t need to tell us what a failure attempts to suppress narcotic supplies have been; he doesn’t need to make the fatalities they cause melodramatic. He’s aware that all you need to do to see the bloody carnage caused by the failed "war on drugs" is simply sit back and observe. What he sees, what he shows us, what we see on our streets every day, is quite simple: these laws don’t put power in the hands of the cops, they just put more guns and more money in the pockets of would-be cowboy criminals.
Note: The only extra feature included on the Blu-ray is a theatrical trailer for the film.