There are times during "Drug War," Chinese director Johnnie To's version of "The French Connection," that you half expect Gene Hackman's Popeye Doyle character to wander into a scene nervously fingering the rim of his hat.
Everything about "Drug War" from its washed out colors and overcast skies to the inordinate amount of time its characters spend in traffic, docks, warehouses and shootouts screams 1970s American cinema.
3 stars = Good
Sun Honglei, Louis Koo.
Unrated, but has intense scenes of gun violence and other mayhem.
Because of this, "Drug War" feels like an old William Friedkin or Sam Peckinpah film shot in the industrial heart of China, but updated to reflect the insidious impact of the meth trade in modern Asia.
"Drug War" opens with a car careening through busy traffic, its driver Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) foaming at the mouth while trying to stay conscious. We'll soon learn that Timmy is a high-level drug baron, a cog in an enormous meth distribution network that stretches across most of Asia. He's also a duplicitous little rat who will do anything to make it through the day, even if it means betraying family.
The car eventually crashes and Timmy, who was fleeing the scene of a meth factory explosion that killed his wife and several colleagues, is taken to a hospital and put under police watch.
Timmy temporarily escapes, only to be collared by the insanely competent and stoic Captain Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei), the super cop who heads the Chinese version of the DEA in that port city. Captain Zhang and his partner Yang Xiaobei (Crystal Huang) coerce Timmy into helping them infiltrate the cartel in exchange for not being promptly executed by the state for being a drug dealer.
Timmy spills the beans on the cartel's secrets and introduces an undercover Captain Zhang to the key players in his network. In one of the film's most gripping scenes, Zhang, pretending to be an obnoxious drug lord known for his distinctive laugh, is forced to snort cocaine to prove he isn't a cop.
After proving his bona fides as a criminal, Zhang is so determined to get the cocaine out of his system, that he submerges himself in a tub full of ice cubes once the criminals are gone. Being under the influence for even a second is abhorrent to Zhang, who prides himself on outsmarting criminals by thinking several moves ahead of them.
Much of the movie is a battle of wits between Zhang and Timmy who appear to be evenly matched when it comes to resourcefulness and improvising in bad situations. Though Timmy mostly delivers on his side of the bargain, there's always some crucial bit of information withheld, forcing a constant renegotiation of his original deal to avoid execution.
Mr. Sun as Captain Zhang is the charismatic heart of "Drug War." His versatility in playing two distinctive criminals as part of an elaborate charade as well as the stoic drug enforcement cop committed to dismantling their empire is a tribute to his talent. He's not just a leading man. He's an acting powerhouse.
Mr. Koo is also great as Timmy Choi, the criminal with the divided heart and mixed motives. The final showdown between Timmy and Zhang is about as intense as a film that doesn't depend on special effects and other pyrotechnics can get these days.
It wouldn't surprise me if some Hollywood studio has already negotiated a deal to remake this movie starring American actors for an American audience that refuses to sit through subtitles, even for a great movie. Do yourself a favor and catch the original in theaters so that you always have bragging rights. No American version of "Drug War" will ever be as good.
Opens today at the Harris Theater, Downtown.
Tony Norman: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1631.