Drug War (毒戰, Johnnie To, 2012)

Drug War posterIn the world of the Hong Kong action flick, the bad guys are often the good guys, and the “good guys” not so good after all. Even crooks have their code and there are rules which cannot be broken ensuring the heroes, even when they’re forced into morally dubious acts, emerge with a degree of nobility in having made a free choice to preserve their honour over their life. In Mainland China, however, things are a little different. The bad guys have to be thoroughly bad and the good guys squeaky clean. You won’t find any dodgy cops or dashing villains in a thriller from the PRC where crime can never, ever, pay. And then, enter Johnnie To who manages to exactly what the censors board asks of him while at the same painting law and chaos as two sides of the same coin, each deluded and obsessed, engaged in an internecine war in which the idea of public safety has been all but forgotten.

The film begins with the conclusion of an undercover operation run by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) in which he successfully disrupts a large scale smuggling operation. Meanwhile, meth cook Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) attempts to escape after an explosion kills his wife and her brothers but drives directly into a restaurant and is picked up by the police. Timmy soon wakes up and tries to escape but is eventually recaptured – from inside the chiller cabinet in the morgue in a particularly grim slice of poetic irony. Seeing as drug manufacture carries the death penalty in the PRC, Timmy turns on the charm. He’ll talk, say anything he needs to say, to save his own life. Including giving up his buddies.

Timmy is, however, a cypher. His true intentions are never quite clear – is he really just an opportunist doing whatever it takes to survive, or does he still think he can escape and is engaged in a series of clever schemes designed outsmart the ice cool Zhang? Zhang takes the bait. Eyeing a bigger prize, he lets Timmy take him into the heart of a finely tuned operation even playing the part of loudmouth gangster Haha in a studied performance which reinforces the blankness of his officialdom. Zhang is certain he is in control. He is the law, he is the state, he is the good.

Could he have misread Timmy? Zhang doesn’t think so. Timmy remains calm, watchful. Eventually he leads Zhang to a bigger drug factory staffed by a pair of mute brothers who have immense respect for their boss. Suddenly Timmy’s impassive facade begins to crack as he tells his guys about his wife’s passing but it’s impossible to know if his momentary distress is genuine, a result of mounting adrenaline, or simply part of his plan – he does, after all, need to get the brothers to give themselves away. Unbeknownst to Timmy, however, the brothers are pretty smart and might even be playing their own game.

To pits Hong Konger Timmy against Captain Zhang of the PRC in a game of cat and mouse fuelled by conflicting loyalties and mutual doubts. Whatever he’s up to, Timmy is a no good weasel who is either selling out his guys or merely pretending to so that he can save them (or maybe just save himself and what’s left of his business). Zhang, meanwhile, is a singleminded “justice” machine who absolutely will not stop, ever, until all the drug dealers in China have been eradicated. Yet isn’t all of this destruction a little bit much? Zhang doesn’t really care about the drugs because drug abuse wrecks people’s lives, maybe he doesn’t really care about the law but only about order and control, and what men like Timmy represent is a dangerous anarchy which exists in direct opposition to his conception of the way the world ought to work.

There is a degree of subversive implication in the seemingly overwhelming power of the PRC coupled with its uncompromising rigidity which paradoxically makes it appear weak rather than strong, desperate to maintain an image of control if not the control itself. The final fight takes place in front of a school with a couple of completely non-fazed and very cute little children trapped inside a school bus – Timmy does at least try to keep them calm even while using them as part of his plan, but Zhang and his guys seem to care little for the direction of the stray bullets they are spraying in order to win the internecine battle with the drug dealers and stop Timmy in his tracks once and for all. A pared down, non-stop action juggernaut, Drug War (毒戰, Dú Zhàn) is another beautifully constructed, infinitely wry action farce from To which takes its rather grim sense of humour all the way to the tragically ironic conclusion.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Line Walker (使徒行者, Jazz Boon, 2016)

When sitcoms make the transition to the big screen, they usually do so by going on holiday. Police procedurals are no different as Line Walker (使徒行者), a cinematic outing for a wildly popular Hong Kong TV Series, proves by throwing its hat into the global ring with a Brazil bound drug based gang war. Taking more than a little inspiration from the classic undercover cop drama Infernal Affairs, Line Walker joins former undercover officer Ding and her handler Q as they receive a mysterious message from a missing operative identifying himself only as “Blackjack”.

Two years ago (as detailed during the TV series), a top Hong Kong detective, Hong, managed to find just enough time before being murdered to wipe all his data relating to officers currently working deep cover. Ditzy cop Ding (Charmaine Sheh) was one such asset, and together with her boyfriend who is also her boss, Q (Francis Ng),  managed to round up and bring all the other operatives save one whose file was corrupted beyond recovery. Therefore when they receive a message written in Hong’s unique code signed “Blackjack” they are cautiously optimistic.

The trail leads them to a corporatised Triad gang currently engaged in the usual Triad business of petty gang wars over drugs, territory, and power. Shiu (Louis Koo) and Lam (Nick Cheung) are best buds and underlings in the organisation with their eyes on bigger prizes. Making a trip to Brazil to broker a drugs deal the pair get themselves into various kinds of trouble which is only compounded by the “Blackjack” issue and suspicions of a possible mole in the gang.

Ding and Q are the only returning characters from the TV series which has received significant upgrades in the big screen jump with the addition of several Hong Kong superstars including Louis Koo and Nick Cheung. Though the central narrative stands alone, there is a degree of assumed familiarity with the ongoing backstory which is at times frustrating for the uninitiated but never much of a barrier. Line Walker does, however, suffer from the common pitfalls of the TV show making the jump into the cinematic world in that it can’t shake the artificial largeness of the small screen.

After beginning with a broadly comic sequence as Ding chases down Blackjack in a Macao casino whilst making time for slapstick pratfalls along the way, the tone progressively darkens until the final, gritty action based finale. Though the banter between the bickering couple Q and Ding is never less than amusing, Ding’s cutesy airhead routine feels out of place with the general tone of the rest of the film especially as she is also supposedly part of a team of elite undercover police officers.

In attempting to up the ante, Line Walker’s scriptwriters have thrown in twists and turns at every juncture as more and more diehard criminals suddenly confess that they are, in fact, undercover police officers. No one is telling the whole truth as double crosses and betrayals dominate the action with an overt Infernal Affairs homage set in the Olympic stadium. Frankly, it all borders on the ridiculous as plot twist plies on plot twist with predictable regularity though it does at least make things exciting.

Exciting is clearly the name of the game when it comes to the action set pieces which attempt to make the most of the cinematic budget. The most high profile of these are the Brazil set sequences filled with shootouts and car chases not to mention precision timed chain reactions of exploding vehicles used as bombs. The physical fights are impressively visceral but occasionally contrived. In one notable instance two men are attacked by a lone assassin armed only with a knife but almost allow themselves to be stabbed for no reason at all. When they do fight back, they do so one on one rather simply taking down the opponent by overwhelming him with their combined strength.

Caught between comedy crime caper and gritty heroic bloodshed, Line Walker can’t make either approach work leading to an abrupt and unsatisfying, if artistically pleasing, finale. Koo and Cheung do their best as the brothers in crime duo each realising that they can’t quite go through with betraying the other, moving from easy banter in the first half to angst ridden glares in the second, but they’re in a different picture from the sunny world of Ding and Q who are still stuck in the TV screen. Though the overworked plot and variable tone create serious problems, Line Walker does at least offer impressive action with a thin layer of comedy even if it fails to hit its emotional target.


Original trailer (English subtitles)