DAILY | Rome 2012 | Johnnie To’s DRUG WAR

Johnnie To is a prime example of a director whose name means one thing to overseas audiences, and quite another to those in his native Hong Kong,” begins Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “While his home fans know him as a prolific genre-hopping polyglot whose production company Milkyway Image is a force to be reckoned with on the national filmmaking scene, abroad, especially in the U.S., he’s primarily known as an action/thriller director; a less-stylized John Woo. And so his newest film, Drug War (Du Zhan), which was a late ‘surprise‘ addition to the Rome Film Festival line-up, should export neatly. A bruising procedural, the film covers in unflinching detail just a couple of packed days in the course of a sprawling and complex sting operation to bring down a cadre of drug kingpins. Despite a strict, almost ascetic attention to narrative logic, To’s storytelling skill somehow kept us engaged through long periods of talkiness and complex plotting, until a climax so violent in its gunplay, so merciless in who it kills and so long, that we felt physically drained when it finally ended.”

Deborah Young in the Hollywood Reporter: “Following his relatively action-less financial thriller Life Without Principle (currently Hong Kong’s nominee for Oscar candidacy), To cuts a sweet slice of genre cake that pits the balletic efficiency of police operatives against the wiles of organized crime lords and leaves few characters standing by its bloody end. The first action film To has shot in mainland China, it brings a reported budget of $16 million of cool to the mainland, where drug stories are very, very rare…. Reteaming with his regular screenwriter and co-producer Wai Ka-fai (A Hero Never Dies, Fulltime Killer), To cuts to the chase, as it were, jettisoning all plot elements that don’t directly relate the battle of Sphinx-like police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) and his nemesis, the handsome young drug lord Timmy Choi (Louis Koo.)”

Drug War is “gritty, uncompromising and hugely exhilarating,” agrees Screen‘s Lee Marshall. “It feels like a step forward for a director whose more recent bullet ballets—in particular Sparrow (2008) and Vengeance (2009)—had started to feel increasingly stylized…. It’s proof of the maturity of the Chinese production sector that it has bankrolled a film that comes on like The French Connection meets The Wire, and features several scenes of in-your-face (and in-their-noses) drug use…. Not since PTU (2003) and Breaking News (2004) has To really got under the skin of a working police unit to this extent…. The dirty realism is amplified by To’s use of natural light and anyway-they-fall camera angles: with almost a TV look at times, Drug War does its best to avoid the conventional noirish atmosphere and Hong Kong gangster aesthetic that To himself helped to define.”

“Skillfully mixing various cinematic ingredients into a delightful recipe for escapism, Drug War is yet more proof that To’s craftsmanship is anything but dated,” declares Celluloid Liberation Front at Indiewire. “On the contrary, he manages to combine pressing social issues with unadulterated entertainment, a rare combo for action movies of any nation.”

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