Johnnie To never received the attention that previous Hong Kong action directors John Woo and Tsui Hark and Jackie Chan got in the U.S. While he delivers the goods when it comes to visceral violence and kinetic action, he’s not flamboyant or outrageous, and he focuses on the intimate more than the epic. The pleasures are as much in the tight plotting, the intricate weave of stories and plotlines and character journeys, and the stripped-down style as the spectacle of gunplay and chases and the physics of momentum and resistance.
To has been working this manner of crime cinema for decades, but it was with The Mission (1999) that he really found his métier: the dynamics of teamwork in a world of violence, whether crooks (Exiled, 2006, Vengeance, 2009) or cops (PTU, 2003). He also continues to make hit comedies, romances, and social dramas, but his crime dramas are his most distinctive and accomplished films and he’s been continually streamlining his style, stripping his films of extraneous detail, be it personal subplots or backstories or the kinds of motivation these films always feel the need to express in breaks for exposition. For To, character is defined by what side you pick and how you do your job.
Drug War is To’s first crime thriller set in Mainland China. He trades the urban overcrowding and overheated capitalism of Hong Kong for the open plains and lonely highways of Tianjin but otherwise it is a classic Hong Kong-style police procedural driven by one of To’s trademark teams. It opens on a police stake-out for drug mules at a border crossing and rapidly upshifts into a once-in-a-lifetime crack at the crime kingpins thanks to a remarkably accommodating informant (To regular Louis Koo) and a tight timeline. A major heroin deal is about to go down and they have to improvise on the fly if they want a shot at following the trail to the kingpins.