Drug War (Du Zhan) is a riveting Hong Kong style action movie set entirely in Mainland China. It’s one of ten IFFR films nominated for the festival’s Big Screen Award, a competition that focuses on giving deserving films a wider audience by guaranteeing the winner a distribution deal here in the Netherlands and other European countries. Drug War didn’t win the competition, but I was very impressed by the film and excited to share my thoughts with you guys.
This realistic-feeling film is Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s first action film set on the Chinese mainland, where drug offenses can get you the death penalty. This is exactly what Timmy Choi, the main character in the film, faces when he is busted for his involvement in a drug operation. In the hopes that his life will be spared he offers to cooperate with police captain Zhang, the head of a narcotics unit that is trying to infiltrate a large drug network.
The movie doesn’t take time to warm up at all, which is a good thing. The viewer is dropped right into the action with a drug bust that introduces the Captain and a separate scene introducing Timmy, who is trying to get as far away as possible from his drug lab that just exploded. Timmy ends up in the hospital and this is where his story merges (very skillfully done by To and the writers I have to add) with that of Captain Zhang, who is there handling the drug traffickers he just busted (i.e. making them poop out the goods). After that the tension never stops… undercover scenes with Timmy’s contacts, chase scenes on Chinese highways and of course a few shootout,s including a great showdown scene in the final act.
But it’s not so much the action that makes this movie exciting (although the action scenes are very well done). It’s mostly the tension between the two main characters. Timmy reluctantly cooperates to avoid death, but is also constantly looking for a way out. Zhang doesn’t trust Timmy at all, and the cat and mouse game constantly going on ensures you’re on the edge of your seat, even during the slower scenes of the film.
Despite all the tension, To also managed to squeeze some comic relief into the film. An example is an undercover scene with a flamboyant drug dealer named Ha-ha (so named because he laughs a lot), who Zhang then has to impersonate in a subsequent encounter. Funny, but it doesn’t take away from the realistic feel of the movie so the film gets extra points for that as well.
All in all Drug War finds a great balance between tension, action and a little humor on the side. I give it 4.5 out of 5 Nerdskulls. Normally I would include the trailer but it contains a major spoiler so I advise you not to watch it and to just check out the movie!