Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Steve Carell Redefined His Career By Surprising Everyone in 'Foxcatcher' Steve Carell Redefined His Career By Surprising Everyone in 'Foxcatcher' Watch: Ellar Coltrane on the 'Brutal' Experience of Watching 'Boyhood' After Living It Watch: Ellar Coltrane on the 'Brutal' Experience of Watching 'Boyhood' After Living It Mortem Tyldum Explains Why Alan Turing Was the Right Subject For His First English-Language Film Mortem Tyldum Explains Why Alan Turing Was the Right Subject For His First English-Language Film Why Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ is a Great, Unexpected Awards Season Frontrunner Why Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ is a Great, Unexpected Awards Season Frontrunner Watch: Patricia Arquette on Stripping Away Ego to Get to the Heart of 'Boyhood' 
Watch: Patricia Arquette on Stripping Away Ego to Get to the Heart of 'Boyhood' 'Whiplash' Breakout Miles Teller Has Officially Arrived 'Whiplash' Breakout Miles Teller Has Officially Arrived Michael Keaton Dug Deep to Deliver the Best Performance of His Career in 'Birdman' Michael Keaton Dug Deep to Deliver the Best Performance of His Career in 'Birdman' Mark Ruffalo Explains Why Dave Schultz Was One of the Most Complex Characters He's Ever Played Mark Ruffalo Explains Why Dave Schultz Was One of the Most Complex Characters He's Ever Played Keira Knightley on 'The Imitation Game' and Why Awards Matter Keira Knightley on 'The Imitation Game' and Why Awards Matter Katherine Waterston On the Good and Bad of Working With Paul Thomas Anderson Katherine Waterston On the Good and Bad of Working With Paul Thomas Anderson Emma Stone Proved She Can Do It All in 2014 Emma Stone Proved She Can Do It All in 2014 Jon Stewart is Off to a Strong Start with Directorial Debut 'Rosewater' Jon Stewart is Off to a Strong Start with Directorial Debut 'Rosewater' Awards Spotlight: Don't Be Surprised When J.K. Simmons Takes Home Oscar Awards Spotlight: Don't Be Surprised When J.K. Simmons Takes Home Oscar Jessica Chastain Proved She's a Total Chameleon in 2014 Jessica Chastain Proved She's a Total Chameleon in 2014 Laura Poitras on 'CITIZENFOUR,' The Most Dangerous Work She's Ever Done Laura Poitras on 'CITIZENFOUR,' The Most Dangerous Work She's Ever Done Jake Gyllenhaal On Doing Very Bad Things in 'Nightcrawler' Jake Gyllenhaal On Doing Very Bad Things in 'Nightcrawler' Channing Tatum Explains Why It Took Him Eight Years to Have the ‘Balls’ for ‘Foxcatcher’ Channing Tatum Explains Why It Took Him Eight Years to Have the ‘Balls’ for ‘Foxcatcher’ Ethan Hawke Didn't Know That Richard Linklater Would Bring 'Boyhood' Home So Well Ethan Hawke Didn't Know That Richard Linklater Would Bring 'Boyhood' Home So Well Jack O'Connell Explains What It’s Like to Work For Angelina Jolie Jack O'Connell Explains What It’s Like to Work For Angelina Jolie 'Red Army' Director Gabe Polsky Reveals the Story of Soviet Hockey 'Red Army' Director Gabe Polsky Reveals the Story of Soviet Hockey How Felicity Jones is Getting Noticed This Awards Season How Felicity Jones is Getting Noticed This Awards Season Edward Norton Goes Full-Blown For Alejandro González Iñárritu in 'Birdman' Edward Norton Goes Full-Blown For Alejandro González Iñárritu in 'Birdman' How Eddie Redmayne Transformed His Body and Mind to Become Stephen Hawking How Eddie Redmayne Transformed His Body and Mind to Become Stephen Hawking Oscar Isaac Explains How 'A Most Violent Year' Fits With His Other Roles Oscar Isaac Explains How 'A Most Violent Year' Fits With His Other Roles Timothy Spall Almost Went Mad to Play 'Mr. Turner' For Mike Leigh Timothy Spall Almost Went Mad to Play 'Mr. Turner' For Mike Leigh 'Gone Girl' Composer Atticus Ross: How to Write a Score Without Seeing the Film 'Gone Girl' Composer Atticus Ross: How to Write a Score Without Seeing the Film How to Play James Brown, By Chadwick Boseman: Study the Man, Listen to Drake How to Play James Brown, By Chadwick Boseman: Study the Man, Listen to Drake Chris Rock on Why Making 'Top Five' Was a No-Brainer Chris Rock on Why Making 'Top Five' Was a No-Brainer Steve James and Chaz Ebert Tackled 'Life Itself' Steve James and Chaz Ebert Tackled 'Life Itself' Bennett Miller Explains Why He Had to Make 'Foxcatcher' Bennett Miller Explains Why He Had to Make 'Foxcatcher' How Do You Roll Six Movies Into One? 'Wild Tales' Director Damian Szifron Explains How Do You Roll Six Movies Into One? 'Wild Tales' Director Damian Szifron Explains How Rosario Dawson Stole the Show From Chris Rock in 'Top Five' How Rosario Dawson Stole the Show From Chris Rock in 'Top Five' Alan Hicks: From Drummer-Surfer to Oscar-Shortlist Filmmaker Alan Hicks: From Drummer-Surfer to Oscar-Shortlist Filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu: 'Birdman' Could Have Been 'so wrong' Alejandro González Iñárritu: 'Birdman' Could Have Been 'so wrong' Amir Bar-Lev Likes to Make People a Little Uncomfortable Amir Bar-Lev Likes to Make People a Little Uncomfortable

Review: Prep For the End of 'Breaking Bad' With Johnny To's Action-Packed 'Drug War'

Photo of Eric Kohn By Eric Kohn | Indiewire July 23, 2013 at 9:08AM

Johnnie To's new crime movie is a nice scene-setter for countless fans of AMC's "Breaking Bad" awaiting its final eight-episode arc.
0
Drug War

Hong Kong director Johnny To isn't a big name for moviegoers in the West, but while cranking out dozens of projects in various genres over a three-decade career, one of his major achievements has been to make several terrific alternatives to Hollywood action and crime dramas. At their best, the movies To's made in this vein blend tough, relentlessly paced action sequences with equally hardened characters positioned in unexpectedly thoughtful contexts. To blends moods with such precision that it's often impossible to tell if you're watching an exaggerated, bloody gangster story or something far more serious. Usually it's both. 

To's crime movies are frequently populated by broadly drawn personalities whose eccentricities transcend their relatively basic scenarios, as with the poetic "Exiled," the twisted black comedy "Mad Detective" or the farcical "Blind Detective," which premiered earlier this year at the Cannes Film Festival. While that recent To project has yet to reach U.S. shores, the 2012 crime thriller "Drug War" opens this week. More traditional in terms of atmosphere and plot, "Drug War" nevertheless features a tense, unstoppable momentum, a morally ambiguous protagonist and hugely involving action scenes, all of which provide a welcome alternative to many of the less precise spectacles released on American screens this summer.

It's also, by way of serendipitous timing, a nice scene-setter for countless fans of AMC's "Breaking Bad" awaiting its final eight episodes, set to premiere next month. While that groundbreaking show has birthed the iconic anti-hero Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a once-harmless schoolteacher now fully evolved into a menacing criminal drug dealer, "Drug War" offers up a far more outwardly pathetic meth cook in Timmy Choi (Louis Koo). After a sudden bust finds Timmy in the clutches of no-nonsense Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei), it doesn't take much to get Timmy to start spilling the beans about the movements of the cartel that relies on his product: Chinese law has the power to execute anyone responsible for the mass production of meth, and Timmy's lust for power and his pride both fall well behind his will to live. With a mere 72 hours left to intercept a shipment of meth headed for Chinese shores, Zhang and his team put Timmy back into the field to lure the rest of his cohorts. 

Bryan Cranston as Walter White.
Gregory Peters/AMC Bryan Cranston as Walter White.

A similar fate has yet to befall Walter White, but it's not hard to imagine an arc on "Breaking Bad" following these exact same beats. Like Timmy, White initially claims that he wants to protect his family, although it becomes increasingly clear that he wants to protect himself at all costs. For both men, the possibilities of betrayal and weak-kneed conciliations are constantly intertwined. Like White, Timmy maintains a stone-cold expression that's next to impossible to read: Is he just ticked that he's selling out his coworkers for the sake of his own cowardly motives or has he cooked up a scheme to double-cross the cops watching his every move? Director To skillfully keeps these possibilities veiled in uncertainty by moving the story along at such a relentless clip that it's impossible to contemplate Timmy's motives without losing track of the next step in the investigation. 

As the cops rig Timmy with recording devices and follow him through a series of meetings with crime bosses and middlemen, To displays a penchant for the art of cross-cutting -- one of cinema's earliest tricks -- by continuing to shift between Timmy's interactions and the cops listening from afar for virtually the entire duration. These exchanges are balanced off by swift exchanges between the collaborators prior to each scene and punctuated by speedily choreographed shootouts.

But even though the slickly constructed storytelling breaks no fresh ground, "Drug War" never feels entirely mechanical. Koo's grave performance makes for a fascinating centerpiece, and he's matched by Honglei as the cool-headed Captain Zhang, whose willingness to take a gamble on Timmy's disloyal temperament echoes the cunning antics of DEA agent Hank Schrader (Dean Norris) on "Breaking Bad." Zhang lacks Schrader's peculiar combination of smarmy charisma, but both men maintain a hardened composure that belies the frantic plotting taking place inside their heads.

Their uncertain chemistry establishes several fine-tuned suspense sequences in which they both hide their agendas in the presence of other criminals: A key pair of scenes find an undercover Zhang tailing Timmy to a mob boss meeting and then assuming the role of the same man for a different encounter moments later. In both scenes, it's unclear which of them has the upper hand, an uncertainty that lingers all the way through the final, grisly showdown.

We still don't know how things will work out for Walter White, but Timmy's ultimate fate provides some provocative fodder for considering the possibilities. While at first his cooperation with authorities turns him into a figure of sympathy, his future actions complicate matters until it's clear that he only plays along with the agendas surrounding him in order to service his own. His last line in "Drug War" sums it all up: "I can supply you with more information," he moans, driving home To's engaging portrait of a traitor to every cause, whose infidelity makes him far worse than the scum he turns in. In general terms, "Drug War" delivers a cliched tribute to the unflappable authority of the law, but To stages that conclusion with the same powerful finality that has put "Breaking Bad" on the map. Sometimes, as "Drug War" compellingly argues, it doesn't pay to be the one who knocks. 

Criticwire grade: A-

HOW WILL IT PLAY? Well Go USA and Variance Films release "Drug War" in New York on Friday with a Los Angeles and national release to follow. Hardcore genre fans should ensure the film's strong performance on VOD; its theatrical prospects are trickier, but over the next several weeks it has a shot at gaining momentum from strong reviews and word of mouth. 

This article is related to: Reviews, Television, Action, Chinese, Crime, Drug War, Johnnie To, Breaking Bad, Walter White, Louis Koo






Check out Indiewire on LockerDome on LockerDome



Awards Season Spotlight

Contender Conversations

Indiewire celebrates the best and brightest from Independent film, Hollywood, and foreign cinema.

More