Drug War - Online Review

'as your typical collection of stereotyped 'drug family' characters show up, you wonder quite how much thought has gone into Drug War'

Nominated in several categories for the OFCS Awards, I can honestly say I would not have heard of Drug War had it not been for the OFCS' collective passion for Johnnie To's film. I cannot, in fact, profess any knowledge of the man himself, despite him clearly having a passionate fanbase and a spectacular production-line work ethic, with some 45 listed releases since 1990 (or 45 films in 23 years, if you want to be really impressed).

To's genre appears to mainly be the stylised police thriller and Drug War's kitsch title and simplistic plot provides evidence that he's not overly concerned with pushing boundaries from a concept point of view. Happening upon a break in a big drugs case, Captain Zhang (Honglei Sun) enters into a fragile alliance with drug cooker Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), just escaped from his exploding factory. As Zhang pushes his team to follow Choi to the top of the drug ladder it's less clear who's controlling who and just how equipped Zhang is for what's around the corner.

Whilst there are few surprises to come from that setup, To does craft an occasionally tense film with some nice set pieces and smaller quirks that lend the film character. Zhang's near-obligatory bout of undercover drug taking isn't greeted with a few hours of cold turkey, but a mad dash to get the captain ship shape and keep him alive, made all the more fraught by the fact that it is Choi giving the life-saving directions.

Meanwhile, Choi's underling drug workers aren't your normal lunk-heads, but two mute brothers, in a rare show of disabled characters being present in a film where their disability is not the subject, nor a factor which limits their involvement in the plot. Far from it actually: Li Jing and Tao Guo's characters prove a highlight, kicking off the final third of action with a riotous defence of their distribution hub.

The problems with the plot though become more and more apparent as the film moves into its final motions. Undercover and playing another character, Zhang takes control of the original character's port, ordering ships around like he owns the place. Considering this not to be the case, wouldn't someone at the well-manned and presumably thoroughly corrupt port have asked him quite what he was doing pretending to be someone he is clearly not? It's a minor problem, but as your typical collection of stereotyped 'drug family' characters show up, you wonder quite how much thought has gone into Drug War.

Eventually, To's film builds to the kind of final fight where the best anyone can hope for is several grievous bullet wounds and a walk-on part in the next Tarantino. Like that director though, To's film is open to accusations of a fanboy-like reliance on blood and guts and limited quality focus on character or plot. Final ballet of gunfire dispensed with, To's film ends, leaving that familiar and slightly unsatisfying taste in the mouth that hints at a director more concerned with putting you through an unsavoury ordeal than crafting something of quality. There's still fun in a journey like that but an awards worthy offering? I'm unconvinced.

By Sam Turner. Sam is editor of Film Intel, and can usually be found behind a keyboard with a cup of tea. He likes entertaining films and dislikes the other kind. He's on , Twitter and several places even he doesn't yet know about.


  1. I'm unconvinced too. And like you, I might not have caught up with this one if not for the OFCS. I agree with pretty much everything you say. There were quirks and bits on the periphery that I enjoyed, but these films always come across as most concerned with set pieces and plots specifically designed to get to that final ballet of gunfire as the expense of most everything else.

    1. Yeah, I mean it was entertaining enough but wasn't it nominated in Best Film (amongst others)? I don't regard it anywhere nearly that high I'm afraid.