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Rome Film Festival Review: How Johnnie To’s ‘Drug War’ Confirms the Director’s Skill

Rome Film Festival Review: How Johnnie To's 'Drug War' Confirms the Director's Skill

A solid, visceral action flick from Hong Kong maestro Johnnie To, “Du Zhan” (“Drug War”) delivers on audience expectations. Confidently following a familiar route, the Chinese director brings his brand of muscular gangster movies to a new potential market. In fact, “Drug War” is the first of To’s many films to be shot and set in mainland China — specifically in the Jinshan district. Unfolding in a country right in the middle of an economic boom, where opportunities for rogue entrepreneurs are ripe, the film benefits from a topic that feels especially timely.

The plot is meaty enough: After the inclement boss of a drug cartel Ming (Louis Koo) is arrested during a raid, he’s persuaded by police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) to take part in an undercover operation aimed at his own gang in exchange for a reduction of jail time. Setting up business meetings with powerful bosses in order to head off major drug and money transactions and arrest those involved, the crime lord starts betraying his former accomplices one by one.

Torn between commitment to the mission and his shaky credentials, Ming’s internal struggles inject an extra dose of tension and adrenaline to an already commanding film. By contrast, as Captain Lei, Sun delivers a virtuous performance by playing an icy and inflexible man of the law. Throughout the movie, he impersonates a dumb, guffawing gangster taken out at the beginning of the operation, demonstrating an impressive acting range. He and his squad infiltrate the drug trade with plenty of calculation, but Ming can’t make his mind about his allegiances.

The film is impeccably choreographed. Craft prevails over CGI, as the film maintains an atmosphere that gets under your skin rather than trying to make it quiver with overblown special effects. Handcuffed to the dead weight of the law, the double-crossing Ming keeps offering more information to stay alive while maintaing secrets along the way. Neither he nor Lei  have full control of the situation until the very end.

Delicately crafted with To’s distinctive mastery of action, the final shootout takes place in a few square meters of space. Totally devoid of special effects, the scene is a ballet of crashing cars, hissing bullets and falling bodies impeccably conceived. The movie also stands out for its use of lively locations. Bypassing the opulent luxury that has bewitched the makers of the latest James Bond film, “Skyfall,” To delivers a more authentic and credible glimpse of modern China.

Skillfully mixing various cinematic ingredients into a delightful recipe for escapism, “Drug War” is yet more proof that To’s craftsmanship is anything but dated. On the contrary, he manages to combine pressing social issues with unadulterated entertainment, a rare combo for action movies of any nation. A straightforward story told with oodles of style, “Drug War” is also competently acted, scripted and shot. To’s latest work confirms the  efficiency of a first-rate genre filmmaker. That said, the film does not innovate or break any new ground; its value lies in its adherence to the expectations, not a defiance of them. Criticwire grade: B

HOW WILL IT PLAY? To’s film has the potential to find a robust response from aficionados of Hong Kong action cinema and play very well at festivals, especially those equipped with genre sidebars. Theatrical prospects are limited.

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