Rome 2012 – Competition – Surprise Film
Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To’s first action film to be shot in mainland China is gritty, uncompromising and hugely exhilarating. It feels like a step forward… To spends less time choreographing conflict and more charting, at a breakneck pace, the messiness of a nasty, vicious war... 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… This feisty, pugnacious number will positively benefit from its pioneering location, among international cineastes curious to see the mean streets of the New China. To followers and Asian genre fans should embrace the film warmly… Not since PTU (2003) and Breaking News (2004) has To really got under the skin of a working police unit to this extent…
— Dan Fainaru, SCREEN INTERNATIONAL
In Drug War, Hong Kong genre master Johnnie To gives a superlative lesson on how to give an updated, thoroughly engrossing twist to the classic cops-and-robbers chase. 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. Shot and acted with flair… The action proceeds at a consistently fast pace, pushed by the pulsating beat of Xavier Jamaux’s music with barely space for a breather… A harbor sequence confirms the screenplay’s ability to re-invent genre clichés in a last, tension-heavy masquerade where $30 million in heroin gets bartered in the midst of a fleet of fishing boats… The satisfying end takes place in a wild and woolly shoot-out in front of an elementary school, a bloodbath so punishing that the good guys and bad guys can hardly be distinguished anymore… To takes a playful approach shuffling the story elements and confusing the audience. Superior stunt-work gives even the most violent battles a realistic look, while scenes are swept along on an elegant stream of breath-taking shots and cinematography.
— Deborah Young, HOLLYWOOD REPORTER
Hong Kong action maestro Johnnie To takes his genre filmmaking savvy to the mainland in "Drug War," a nail-biter that's actually quite light on action but so well-scripted and shot, it's nonetheless edge-of-your-seat material… More realistic than the helmer's prior actioners, the pic should prove a refreshingly different good time for To's genre fans worldwide… The setup is impressively constructed and written, especially the inspired idea to let Zhang play the shady figure he's met in the first meeting, the hysterically laughing Brother Haha (Hao Ping), during the second rendezvous, offering Sun the perfect opportunity to show off his acting chops. To's directorial mastery also comes into full view here, infusing a real sense of menace, tension and even humor into two long scenes that essentially show a small group of people sitting around a table talking.Shot in cold-paletted widescreen by To's regular d.p., Cheng Siu-keung, the pic offers some visual spectacle in one scene set in Tianjin's enormous seaport, where all the boats are ordered to move out at the same time, and in another featuring a shootout at a factory run by deaf-mute employees (Guo Tao, Li Jing). This latter sequence is staged sans musical accompaniment, almost skirting documentary territory… Tech package is top-drawer, with Xavier Jameux's percussion-heavy score further helping to maintain rhythm and tension.
The film is more than just a Hong Kong graft onto the body China. To has modified his style to take account of the Mainland's different look and more spacious geography, as well as appearing to be newly energised by the challenge of what he can get away with.
The result is a playful movie… If he chooses to pursue the new avenues opened up, Drug War could mark a fresh beginning for To as an action director, rather than remain a one-off challenge he's clearly had some fun in taking on… Elaborately choreographed, and with no lack of power from China's stricter regulations on screen violence, the action sequences are enough to keep To's bang-bang fans satisfied… With its constant shifts of tone, and deliberately opaque approach to plotting, Drug War keeps the audience on its toes and largely engaged.
— Derek Elley, FILM BUSINESS ASIA
A solid, visceral action flick from Hong Kong maestro Johnnie To, "Du Zhan" ("Drug War") delivers on audience expectations… The film is impeccably choreographed. Craft prevails over CGI, as the film maintains an atmosphere that gets under your skin rather than trying to make it quiver with overblown special effects… Delicately crafted with To's distinctive mastery of action, the final shootout takes place in a few square meters of space. Totally devoid of special effects, the scene is a ballet of crashing cars, hissing bullets and falling bodies impeccably conceived. The movie also stands out for its use of lively locations. Bypassing the opulent luxury that has bewitched the makers of the latest James Bond film, "Skyfall," To delivers a more authentic and credible glimpse of modern China… 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. On the contrary, he manages to combine pressing social issues with unadulterated entertainment, a rare combo for action movies of any nation. A straightforward story told with oodles of style, "Drug War" is also competently acted, scripted and shot. To's latest work confirms the efficiency of a first-rate genre filmmaker.
— Celluloid Liberation Front, INDIEWIRE
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… what's perhaps most impressive is that without resorting to love triangles or interpersonal complications, in fact without a shred of backstory or a single moment of personal time given to any of the many principals, you come to care for the characters nonetheless, simply for their uncompromising determination, which results for many of them in the ultimate sacrifice. This is an achievement that shouldn't be understated, and huge props have to go to the cast, especially Honglei Sun, who is so, so good as the singleminded Captain Zhang… the more effective the final shootout, when the film careens completely, and bloodily, off the rails. In a bravura, multi-location, almost wordless climax, bullets fly and bodies mount up on both sides, with a distinctly un-Hollywood disregard for any character's screen time to that point… as a commercial film it's impressively unglamourised and unrelenting, albeit wildly exaggerrated. It hooks you early, draws you in gradually, and then beats you soundly around the head for the last twenty minutes. Masochists that we are, it's how we like to be treated.
— Jessica Kiang, INDIEWIRE/THE PLAYLIST