The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Drug War

Most Americans probably don't know director Johnnie To, but fans of the foreign action genre will certainly be familiar with The Heroic Trio, Triad Election, and the very intense Vengeance. His latest, Drug War, is like a Chinese version of The Wire. It's a compelling procedural that offers an inside look at the drug trade.

Louis Koo plays a drug lord named Timmy Choi, who is nabbed by cops after being critically wounded in a meth lab accident. Faced with the death penalty for his crimes, he decides to save his own skin by working with police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) to bring down the partners with whom he's been operating a major methamphetamine ring. The first step involves Zhang going undercover by posing as another lowlife whom the partners have not yet met; because the guy, nicknamed Haha, is known for his boisterous laugh, he must convincingly adopt a completely new personality. As Choi leads him closer and closer to the top of the totem pole, Zhang begins to doubt the sincerity of his informant. Not only must he maintain the guise of a pusher, he must also keep close tabs on Choi's increasingly suspicious behavior, to make sure that he isn't double crossed and put into a life-threatening situation.

I've seen lots of movies about police attempts to infiltrate drug rings, and Drug War easily ranks among the best. Johnnie To mostly keeps things very grounded and authentic, showing how Zhang uncovers the various details of the operation. Of particular interest are the moments showing how the dealers protect themselves from being caught. Two of them, a set of non-verbal, meth-manufacturing twins, have an escape hatch in the floor, allowing them to sneak out when the cops raid. I once met a member of an inner city drug task force who told me stories about what happens in Philadelphia crack houses. He said that the dealers had buttons that, when pushed, would slam all the doors shut and lock them, trapping anyone who might try to run off without paying. He also told me of the horrors an unlucky individual facing one of those doors would endure. That imagery haunts me to this day. Drug War has that same kind of specificity in detailing the way big-time drug dealers need to plan for every possible contingency. Their life is the ultimate self-protection plan.

Drug War also offers up a lot of original, suspenseful complications for Zhang to face. One or two of them are familiar he's forced to prove that he isn't a cop by sampling some drugs but most of them I haven't seen before. At one stage of the game, the police have to take over a large number of boats in a seaport to convince a major player in the drug operation that Zhang (as HaHa) has a legit shipping operation. Scenes such as this help make Drug War very engrossing. The danger for Zhang escalates continually, as do his efforts to keep his cover. The most intense aspect, though, is the interplay between Choi and Zhang. The informant behaves in ways that are passive-aggressive, and he's always got an excuse for something questionable he's done. Was he really just patting that guy on the arm, or was it some sort of secret signal? Like Zhang, we never know and are consequently on edge the entire time.

There are a couple of small action scenes scattered throughout, and a massive one at the end. Actually, the finale is the only part of Drug War that overdoes things a bit. The shootout is endless, and edited in such a manner as to be disorienting at times. It's difficult to tell who's shooting at whom. Not that it matters much. This is, on the whole, a riveting crime drama with solid performances and a gripping sense of what it takes not only to keep a drug syndicate operating but also to shut one down. Drug War is a first-class police story.

( 1/2 out of four)

Drug War is unrated, but contains strong violence and graphic drug use. The running time is 1 hour and 45 minutes.

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