NYAFF Review: 'Drug War'

A confused Homer Simpson sat down to watch a Clint Eastwood/Lee Marvin shoot 'em up, unaware that “Paint Your Wagon” was actually a musical. “Why aren't they killing each other??!” he asked. I must confess I had similar thoughts during much of renowned (and prolific) Hong Kong director Johnnie To's by-the-book police procedural “Drug War.” While the third act did slake my thirst for bullet ballet, it came a little too late after such a standard law-and-order tale. “Drug War” is by no means a bad film, but it doesn't do much to push the needle of originality, and doesn't glide enough to represent perfection of the genre.

We open, disgustingly, after a busload of drug mules are busted at a toll booth. Their drug pods are removed from their internal cavities and washed in a bowl for evidence. I've never touched hard drugs, but, man, they must REALLY be good if people still take them knowing where they've been crammed in order to get across the border.

The head of the drug busting squad is Zhang (Sun Honglei), stone-faced and determined. He's quick to seize upon new hospital patient Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), brought in after a car accident. Zhang recognizes that his burns are those of a drug maker, and since this a drug war he enlists Choi to be his mole lest he face a death sentence.

What follows is a march up the food chain to find the big boss, with all the usual surveillance scenes and tension-rich moments where our guys may get caught as informers. The biggest bright spot is the introduction of middle-management goon called HaHa (Hao Ping.) His false joviality (and constant laughing) make for some sparkling scenes, and when our lead later has to impersonate him it's the first crack in the very stern exterior of our drug war captain. (The rest of his team are equally straight, but at least Crystal Huang gets to wear some well-tailored duds.)

Another strange beat in the film comes when our crew must infiltrate a group of deaf people in a factory. Now, I don't have that much experience with deaf people in my life, but I live in a big city and I will happen upon groups of deaf people signing to one another and not think much of it. In “Drug War” the deaf people sign and make demonstrative grunting noises. The sound they make is precisely what immature ten year old kids make when they are trying to make fun of the mentally challenged.

I don't know what degree of verisimilitude To has achieved – maybe deaf Chinese narcotics workers really do make these sounds, but for me it was just too much to handle. It made me very uncomfortable, and distracted me a great deal. If it was a brief moment I'd let it pass, but there are many lengthy scenes with these characters and I found it to be troubling. Perhaps your mileage will vary.

Luckily, the end of the film involves everyone killing one another in a big-ass battle scene, which certainly differentiates itself from an episode of “NCIS.” (Okay, I can't be certain of that – I don't have my AARP card yet so I've never seen “NCIS,” but you get my point.) “Drug War,” even with the unfortunate portrayal of deaf characters, is just interesting enough to get a mild recommend from me. I know Johnnie To has his posse and this light praise may be heretical, but I find it hard to convince myself that this is lasting, memorable material.

SCORE: 6.3/10

"Drug War" is playing on Friday, July 5 as part of the New York Asian Film Festival.