War opens in New York this weekend. The
film expands to Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center on August 9th.
Consider the title Drug War. It’s a generic title that conjures images of cops and criminals testing each other’s might. But also consider the current climate in which Johnnie To’s Drug War is coming from. Creatively speaking, the crime-story genre as a whole has been through something of a renaissance. From Gerando Naranjo’s Miss Bala complicating the typically masculine gender dynamic to Vince Gilligan’s expansive Breaking Bad series, the drug-addled genre has seen a remarkable departure from the usual. Drug War is an impeccable addition to the aforementioned pieces of work. Not just a subversive exercise, Drug War explores the toxic world of the drug trade with calibrated precision that elevates genre filmmaking to something of considerable artistic merit.
It’s all in the plotting with Drug War. Like its title, the film’s beginning does not inspire confidence. As a vomiting man crashes into a busy department store, Johnnie To moves to a barren industrial toll way. Peering into the lives of those on empty highway, the audience focuses in on two junkie truck drivers stopping at a toll. The whole sequence bares a strikingly awkward tone as the integral pieces to the film are all falling into place. This is then followed by a passing bus, where two passengers appear to be sharing a measure of camaraderie. But as the sequence plays on, the audience realizes that the bus transports drug traffickers. A brief chase ensues as authorities apprehend their target, where the apparently inconsequential scenes beforehand become interlinked and dissected.
The above synopsis of Drug War’s first ten minutes may not seem like an enthusiastic plea to consider the film. But it may be because To is quite deliberately laying a conventional groundwork that serves to subvert expectations. There’s a purposeful swiftness to the opening of Drug War that conveys To’s own discontent with the particulars. To is looking to get into the meat of his narrative as quickly as possible. And once he does (as the film becomes a police procedural in the most serious sense) there’s a perpetual momentum of unnerving narrative propensity.
No semblance of exposition is offered to any of the film’s protagonists. Like Jessica Chastain’s character in Zero Dark Thirty, the heroes in Drug War have non-existent lives. There’s no intrusion of self-reflection. Instead, they’re roaming the treacherous landscape like machines, at times forgetting that it’s time to take a rest. This sort of relentlessness is mirrored through To’s formal precision. Every sequence is marred by a critical sense of propulsion. This need to move forward gives To a commanding hold on his viewer – one that he never lets go. Unlike typical Hollywood action films, To keeps his audience close, often dropping critical lines of exposition without ever reinforcing their importance. Not a difficult film by any means, it’s one that understands that the audience has seen films of this type before. As a result, it deploys the usual benchmarks of the genre flippantly, where the focus becomes on what sets Drug War apart from the others. From tense sequences of impersonation to violent shoot-outs that aim at the jugular, Drug War proves to be a welcoming introduction to Johnnie To’s brand of filmmaking.