Johnnie To’s “Drug War” – 2013 New York Asian Film Festival Review

“Drug War” is not the Johnnie To film that you may go into the theater thinking, or hoping, it would be.  The director’s latest movie, produced with the Mainland Chinese market and, subsequently, censors in mind, is markedly toned down, slowed almost to the point of inducing boredom, and lacking the wild scenes that veteran viewers of his earlier work and other Hong Kong action films have come to expect.

Not all is lost, however.  What To and writer Wai Ka-Fai lose in terms of stylistic freedom, they parlay into crafting an action drama that thoughtfully delivers through its plot and carefully constructed cinematic storytelling.

After landing in a Jinhai hospital due to an explosion at his amphetamine production factory, Hong Kong drug cartel member Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) finds himself targeted for investigation by the Chinese Anti-Drug Squad.  In a plea for a reduced sentence, Choi teams up with Captain Zhang (Sun Hong-Lei), the squad’s deadpan leader, to reveal other members of the cartel and collaborate in bringing them to justice.  However, after the revelation that there are more than just Mainland Chinese players in Choi’s network, it becomes suspicious as to which side he’s really playing for.

As natural as Sun and Koo are in their respective roles, the film is overwhelmingly slow at times.  The audience finds out, scene by scene, detail by detail, exactly what Choi knows and chooses to gradually reveal.  Because the plot has been drawn out in such a way, whatever air of suspense there was turns into borderline tedium as one waits (and waits…) for at least one bloody shootout.  (But then again, as this film was censored, keep your expectations low in terms of how much violence will actually be shown.)

For those with more patience for an atypical To film, the layered story pulls in some fun side characters, such as the mute brothers (Guo Tao and Li Jing) who run another amphetamine factory and the Hong Kong cartel leaders.  The latter are played by an easily recognizable cast – Lam Suet, Lo Hoi-Pang and Eddie Cheung, among others – in a twist on the usual China versus Hong Kong theme.  Instead of the “good guys” being from Hong Kong, they are the aggressors.  Pandering to the audience, Mr. To?

“Drug War” screens at the New York Asian Film Festival on July 5 at 7:45 p.m. at Lincoln Center.  For ticket information, go to  The film will also be released at the IFC in New York on July 26, in Los Angeles on August 2 and across select American and Canadian markets on August 9.