The swooping cranes make their appearances, but overall this is rougher than To's late style, a reflection of the brute force of Chinese police responding without mercy. Their "heroism" is such that one cop's dying act is to handcuff a bad guy to himself. That's such a powerful image of Mainland myopia I can't believe it could show up in a HK film, much less one submitted for approval.
Although it might be one of To's more straightforward films (in stylistic and narrative terms), it's also one of his most subversive, beautifully depicting the pointlessness of drug wars, in which everyone loses. To also blurs the boundaries so completely that it becomes impossible to tell who protagonists, anti-heroes or villains are. To also shots China in a way that I've never seen, as an industrial waste zone.
I might unfairly oversimplify this as "Michael Mann in China" and give it an average rating were it not for the engrossing performances of Koo and Sun + the ferocious final act. The impact of codifying drug trafficking as a capital offense could have been explored further than making it Timmy's desperate MO. That To feels he has yet to be a "real" filmmaker makes me interested in more, even if I'm not a fan.
Honor versus dishonor. Law versus lawlessness. Johnnie To's crackerjack thriller, DRUG WAR, follows a drug dealer who agrees to act as a mole for the police in return for avoiding Hong Kong's mandatory death penalty for manufacturing illegal drugs. To's direction is flawless, spinning a simple black and white morality tale caught in a world colored in shades of gray. Gripping, top of the line suspense.
I am convinced To is the most economical of directors. This pic moves at such breakneck speed that its subversiveness is easy to miss at first. I would like a little more character development, but it accomplishes what it sets out to do. It's a slick, exhilarating crime thriller.