The climactic set piece of Drug War, Chinese filmmaker Johnnie To’s action-packed police procedural, features an homage to, of all things, Erich von Stroheim’s Greed, one of my favorite classics from the silent era. That alone elevates the material, in my humble opinion.
The plot is not terribly complicated: In order to avoid the death penalty, a captured meth manufacturer/dealer turns informant for a special anti-drug task force. The cops are all dedicated and virtuous, the criminals are petty and self-serving, and members of both factions are single-mindedly devoted to their chosen professions, to the apparent exclusion of private lives. The hero, a no-nonsense undercover operative, epitomizes this attitude, effortlessly slipping in and out of various assumed identities despite the absence of a discernible personality of his own—beyond “steely resolve,” anyway.
The story, however, is told with enough elegance and stylistic control to overcome this seeming lack of moral and thematic complexity. The constant camera movement creates a fluid, almost hypnotic sense of scene-to-scene continuity—an effortless marriage between craft and substance. Like Mission: Impossible IV, the narrative never loses its relentless forward momentum, ensuring that, even without complete insight into the characters’ inner lives, the viewer is always emotionally invested in the action.
Of course, some gorgeously choreographed gunplay certainly helps.
[Originally written August 7, 2013.]