The Muted Tones and Diminishing Returns of the High in ‘Drug War’

A pale green smoke bleeds plump and slow into a malnourished sky. There has been an accident. An explosion in a factory in the outskirts of urban China. There is no Foxconn logo in sight, no sign of the crimes of globalism or unconscionable working conditions. The product made here is subject to neither taxation nor subsidy. This factory was a meth lab. In China, the penalty for possession of 50 grams of meth is a death sentence.

What we have in this first scene is a color scheme that belies the humanity of the film. A dull gradient elides the possibility of moral valiance and the barb of craven self-interest alike. Kids don’t much mind whether they play the cops or the robbers. If they’re sexy enough, neither should actors.

What we get from Johnnie To’s Drug War is the sense that frenetic, rampant movement is the closest we can come to the Truth. In a world where the spark of life trickles down from atomic laws to cell division to animal locomotion, there is synaptic firing and there is violence- no room for moral philosophizing. It’s understood that money drives the drug trade. In this film though, the dealers and the police seem drawn by something like inertia rather than avarice. Here they stand, they can do no other. They seem like they could have ended up on either side and once the cops pick up a big time dealer, it becomes clear how quickly people can switch teams.

The film opens with a border smuggling operation turned melee-gone-awry. Much of the film consists of transition shots between cars- cops trailing a truck full of drug dealers, who are trailing their new connections ad nauseum. It is actually rather hard to keep up with who is who, excepting the chemically scarred and deeply sexy Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) and the chameleon police chief Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei).

This film does not want for bloodsport. Choi’s skin is charred and warped from the meth lab explosion. Trigger fingers pop like rubber bands. Gun fights blow flesh from men who seem to be composed of hit points rather than souls. You can almost feel the rumble pack in your hand as cars and concrete get hollowpoint-microdermabrasion. There is a strange kind of masochism in these cutthroats that can smell neither sex nor pleasure.

And yet, despite the film’s subtle beauty and rhythmic accuracy, I was pretty bored. I knew it had been lauded by critics. It’s cover displayed the words: “A Masterpiece”. Johnnie To was supposed to be the real deal. And yet…

There’s a definite emptiness in the air. It’s cool but hollow. I have grown to greatly appreciate pulp film, a position which my pretentious college self would have accepted but inwardly sneered at. But what I like about pulp is the melodrama. I like the high contrast lighting and the saccharine sweethearts. I like violence with a pulse. Somewhere along the line, Drug War lost me.

There’s a clunker of a scene that stuck with me. Sandwiched between a charming, clown act from Captain Zhang, where he pretends to be two different criminals to lure in two other criminals, there’s a hiccup in authenticity. Captain Zhang, playing the role of Mr. Haha, a drug supplier is asked to snort what appear to be two lines of methamphetamine to prove that he’s down. Shortly after doing so, Zhang is overcome with conniptions, his skin crawls with ants and he requires an ice bath and a good puke to register as a good, sane guy again. It’s a minor flaw but it’s one that a green kid who thought that drugs were cool and scary would make.

It’s a film that’s clearly smarter, crisper and more ambitious than most pulp films. It’s the work of a director who can artfully control the raw materials and conduct them into an orchestrated work of art. There are many moments that I could tell were clever or funny but didn’t bring my heart rate up. Maybe the problem is that the film tries to be too clever. Johnnie To clearly wanted to make a superlative film, above and beyond the bounds of the genre. In a way, this may have been the fatal flaw as it makes it hard to just sink in and fall for some bloodshed.

The DVD comes with the theatrical trailer and previews, all of which can easily be found online. They don’t constitute a significant addition to the film.

RATING 6 / 10