While it takes a while to come to a full boil, "Drug War" is an atypically grim gangster film from the typically inspired Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To. At first it looks like an extra-slick and gratuitously mean-spirited police procedural. But the film's flintiness and initially subdued nastiness set it apart from most other action films about the thin line separating cops from crooks.
To ("Sparrow," "Exiled"), and the film's four screenwriters (led by regular To collaborator Wai Ka-Fai) start by breaking down the hierarchical relay of information during a drug bust. Smalltime crooks are snapped up and put through the ringer by Captain Zhang Lei (Honglei Sun) and his partner Yang Xiaobei (Crystal Huang). Buffoonish mules are humiliated, waddling around with their pants down after being forced to strip and take an enema. These interchangeable thugs are little fish compared to Timmy Choi (regular To collaborator Louis Koo), a mid-sized predator in a seemingly tiny body of water. Still, Timmy's treated liked pond scum. Zhang and Yang icily grill him, and give him an ultimatum/proposition: work with the cops to cut off the local drug supply at its source, or get the death penalty. Timmy takes Zhang's deal so quickly that it's impossible to tell if he's buying time or sincerely fighting to save his own skin. That ambiguity is what fuels "Drug War": there is no deal with unbreakable rules because every deal is brokered and decided on a whim.
To's films are usually about macho, playful contests of wills. "Drug War" is no exception. Cops and the crooks constantly try to one up each other, as in an unsettling scene where Zhang, while undercover, has to prove his false identity by snorting cocaine. Each encounter hinges on characters' tics, like the habitual, mirthless laugh Zhang adopts in order to mimic a crook's mannerisms. In To's movies, everything's a game, and the game in "Drug War" is high-stakes poker where everyone bluffs as much as they can afford to.