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.
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.