Johnnie To spends a lot of time in the blood-soaked gutters of Hong Kong. He makes bleak, slow-burning gangster films punctuated with extreme violence and explosive action. In each film, the Hong Kong underworld becomes a character unto itself. It is to To what L.A.'s neon glow is to Michael Mann.
With the terrific Drug War, the auteur's trademarks are all in place: dark alleys, gangsters, drugs, explosive violence, simmering tensions and pangs of humor. But the film finds To in territory that is less Triad Election than Infernal Affairs (remade in the U.S. as The Departed), allowing the director to take a straightforward premise and turn it into an orchestra of double-crosses, shifting allegiances and painful tension.
The film centers on Zhang (Honglei Sun), a tough-as-nails cop leading a crack team of undercover agents in an attempt to take down Hong Kong's meth market. A big bust leads him to Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), the boss of several super-labs. Choi, faced with a death sentence, quickly turns informant, helping Zhang and his crew to infiltrate the labyrinthine drug trade and to climb the ladder of nastiness that seems to span the entire country.
The film is sprawling, but To isn't interested in creating a dense character piece. At no point do we learn anything about Zhang's personal life, nor do we get any background on the villains. Instead, the film focuses squarely on two days in the intersecting lives of the heroes and scoundrels. Yet To still manages to create massive suspense—in an almost unbearably tense sequence, Zhang and Choi meet with a midlevel thug who seems to become increasingly aware that he is under surveillance. A master of escalation, To orchestrates a progressively edgy game of cat-and-mouse, relying on atmosphere and pinpoint performances to drive the narrative to an extended climax in which all the characters collide in a shootout that gives Heat's infamous bank robbery a run for its money.
Combining Hitchcockian savviness of suspense, a Scorsese-esque zeal for multilayered storytelling and Mann's eye for beauty amid scum, the director continues to improve upon his earlier work in every way. Many auteurs wallow in depravity and gutter trash. Few can emerge from such filth with this level of beauty and grace.
Critic's Grade: B+
SEE IT: Drug War opens Friday at the Hollywood Theatre.