Johnnie To (PTU) made a small break from the world of crime after directing Vengeance, focusing more on romance and comedy for a short while (it's not the first time To takes this kind of breather). But the man is just too good to cover up his crime cinema skills, so it was just a matter of time before he would return with his next crime film. And so we see the release of Drug War [Du Zhan], a film that sounds a lot like typical To material, but holds quite a few surprises for seasoned To fans.
Even though extremely stylish, To's crime cinema has always been quite playful and off-kilter (just check out Throwdown, Mad Detective or Sparrow). For more straight-faced work you usually have to dig a little further into the Milky Way catalog (To's production house) which will get you to films like Eye In The Sky. Good stuff, but without the quirky additions usually found in To's films. With Drug War though, To ditches some of his trademark elements and delivers a film that tries a little harder to blend it with the rest, but still outclasses them with ease.
It's not that Drug War is entirely without humor or quirkiness, it's just not as obvious or in your face as in To's previous films. There aren't any completely absurd or stylized moments (like the paper airplane scene in Vengeance or the whistling scene in Mad Detective), instead Drug War has a more natural, down-to-earth feel to it. The shift to Tianjin (a more rural and industrialized area in China) only strengthens this change in atmosphere.
Drug War is a pretty meticulous tale of catching the big fish with one of the smaller fishes you just caught. Zhang is captain of the local drug squad who one day happens upon one of the biggest drug producers (Tommy) of the area. Rather than detain him (and pretty much sentence him to death), Zhang makes a deal with Tommy that will get him access to the area's biggest distributors. Tommy has his own agenda though and he'll do everything in his power to escape from Zhang's clutches.
Visually the film doesn't appear as playful as To's earlier films. This time around To sticks to a stricter color palette and less stylized camera work. That doesn't mean Drug War looks sloppy though. It's still meticulously shot and looks appealing throughout, just without the truly stand-out moments that you might expect from one of To's crime films. It may take some adjusting in the beginning, but upon closer inspection To's skills are still very much present in the details.
The music follows a very similar path. It's not like the quirky, instantly recognizable but uncharacteristic soundtracks often found in his previous films, but it's a lot more traditional in nature. It's still a great soundtrack, classy and very atmospheric, just a lot more in line with what you'd expect from a classic genre film. It makes for a pleasant, stylish and enjoyable audiovisual experience, it's just not as differentiating as his other work.
As for the actors, the biggest shock is probably that Anthony Wong does not appear in this film, not even as a cameo. Louis Koo is slowly turning into a To regular though and Lam Suet landed himself another secondary role, which is always a plus. Koo (Tommy) is visibly enjoying himself and delivers one of his best performances so far, helped by the stellar Honglei Sun who (inspector Zhang). The two of them make a perfect team and balance their act between comedy and straight-faced police action most brilliantly.
Apart from a sprawling finale, Drug War doesn't have too many stand-out moments. Instead To is more focused on the build-up in general, which is tight and pleasantly tense. With every move Zhang tries to get closer to the big fish, Tommy tries to escape from the clutches of Zhang, sacrificing half of China's drug scene in the process. The tension between the two is superbly maintained and finds a perfect release in the film's bloody finale.
Even though Drug War was made for a wider audience, I think its international appeal should be downplayed a little. Western Johnnie To fans won't find many of his signature elements here, instead To keeps much closer to the rules and boundaries of the crime genre (and clear-cut, HK crime cinema isn't that popular in the West - at least not where I live). Then again, if you like the HK police flicks Drug War is one of the best offerings around. It's a stylish, tense and strong crime flick, helmed by one of the most seasoned crime cinema veterans.