On this Chinese street everything is quiet and peaceful on another ordinary day when suddenly out of the traffic speeds a car out of control, the driver vomiting copiously as he tries to stay on the road - and fails, crashing into the nearest shop. An ambulance and the police are called, and the driver, Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) is rushed unconscious to the hospital, leaving his phone behind in the footwell which is being near-constantly called by someone he has to contact. Meanwhile, the passengers on a bus are stopped at a checkpoint toll booth and one of them turns out to be an undercover cop, Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) who will get to know Choi very well very soon...
Drug War, or Du Zhan as it was originally known, marked a milestone in the career of Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To in that after all those years in the business he finally made a film on the Chinese mainland. His ardent fans were worried that what with Chinese censorship being as strict as it is this would not represent the full strength To they craved, and indeed there were many who were turned off by a perceived bias towards the superpower rather than the Hong Kong homeland of the director. With that in mind, were the naysayers justified and was this compromised as a cop thriller or had To managed to work around the restrictions and craft something just as good as he'd always been?
Actually, if you were somehow not aware of the laws on what could be depicted on Chinese screens you might not notice this was toned down, since To and his team of screenwriters contrived a film that eschewed politics and went straight for the morality of the battle against the drug lords. Choi is one of those, and when we see him at the start he has just escaped an explosion in his meth factory which has killed his colleagues and more heartbreakingly his wife, which sets him up as a curiously sympathetic criminal. Once the cops have him under arrest in the hospital, and his attempts at escape have failed, he is coerced into turning informant so Zhang can track the bigger bosses.
However, it's not as clear cut as all that what with us never being quite sure how far Choi will go to save his own ass, and whether that self-preservation is going to place the cops in jeopardy themselves. Zhang is played with stony-faced stoicism by Sun, though he shows off his range by posing as a gangster called Haha, so named for his habit of bursting out laughing at every opportunity, making for striking scenes when the deadly serious Captain does the same. Soon he and Choi have become a curious instance of the buddy movie genre, except there are few laughs here and more a wary acknowledgement that one needs the other to get on, the Captain backed up by his army of cops and the criminal with a network of ne'erdowells.
They include a typically off the wall touch in that Choi has recruited a team of deaf and dumb meth manufacturers who use sign language to communicate, though not even that is an impediment to the supercop who has an interpreter to hand. The modern expertise of the Chinese police was unsurprisingly emphasised, so they have all sorts of technology and cast iron techniques to carry them through the investigation, though not everything goes to plan or it would be a pretty straightforward story, most memorably in the way it builds to a climax. There have been brief action sequences before this, but the grand finale sees To stage one of his great setpieces as all the characters (well, most of them) converge for a mass shootout, making what had threatened to be a little dry when things were not moving all the better in contrast with the bullets flying during the last twenty minutes. Some have a problem with the way the drugs are depicted, but it's not a major issue, just be thankful To wasn't completely undercut by his monolithic Communist benefactors. Music by Javier Jamaux.