The Hong Kong shoot-'em-up is a venerated cinematic genre, one that blew a whole lot of minds and changed the way all movies look, but it really had a pretty short shelf life. The halcyon era really only lasted about seven years: From 1986, when John Woo made the groundbreaking gangster flick A Better Tomorrow, to 1993, when the genre's best directors moved to Hollywood to make Jean-Claude Van Damme joints. In the years since John Woo and Ringo Lam blew town, there's only one Hong Kong director enjoying anything like their international impact. His name is Johnnie To, and the 2012 cops-and-meth-barons thriller Drug War is the moment when he left town himself, albeit in a very different way.
To is a Hong Kong veteran, a guy known for cranking out movies at a ridiculous pace for decades. For much of that time, he was a journeyman, someone just as happy to make an antic comedy as a weird, mystic martial-arts movie. Some of the movies he made during that era are great; he did, after all, direct The Heroic Trio. But To really found his voice around the time he made the lyrical, deadpan 1999 gangster movie The Mission. He wasn't biting Woo or Lam with that one—instead, he had a more restrained, thoughtful take on the whole bullet-opera style. Characters would still get into enormous shootouts, and main characters still had a good chance of dying before the end credits, but they weren't so ostentatious about it, so concerned with looking cool. They didn't fly through the air in slo-mo. Instead, they blasted away at each other with a sort of dutiful reserve, as if conceding that fucking sucks that they have to die, but that's the job. There was a sort of Jim Jarmusch/Takeshi Kitano rhythm to the quieter scenes: Characters seemed to genuinely like each other, and to say more with their eyes than their mouths. He wasn't in a hurry to get to the part where the lead flew, though he shot those parts with an elegant panache.
To stayed crazy active in the years that followed, directing as many as five or six movies a year, so I don't know whether the movies I've seen are representative, or whether they're just one corner of his filmography. But there are plenty of action classics in his '00s filmography: Breaking News, Election, Triad Election, Exiled, Vengeance. (I'll get around to some of those.) And to some degree, all those movies stuck with the style he established with The Mission. At this point, To is a respected member of the international film community—he's served on the Cannes jury and whatnot. He could probably go to Hollywood and make, like, a G.I. Joe sequel if he really wanted. But he'd have a hell of a time squaring his style with what American producers seem to want. So instead, he went to mainland China and made something completely different and badass. That's what Drug War is.
This is the first movie To made entirely in China proper, and it has none of the mythic, soft-focus quality of his post-Mission stuff. Instead, it's a cold, hard, tense procedural. For much of the movie, it looks like it'll be a Chinese take on The Wire, an unflinching look at what measures take-no-shit cops have to take to eliminate dealers. The cops aren't especially glamorous, and neither are their adversaries. Nobody has that noble, unspoken loyalty that the crooks in To's older movies display; instead, many of these motherfuckers can't wait to sell each other out. In the opening scene, a meth manufacturer with burns all over his face pukes all over himself and crashes his car into a restaurant. This is one of your two leads.
That lead is Timmy Choi, a midlevel drug executive who becomes a not-that-reluctant police ally when he learns that he can either snitch or face immediate lethal injection. (The courts seem to work really, really differently in China.) His foil is Captain Zhang Lei, one of the great onscreen hardnose cops of recent years. Zhang has a great introduction. He's working undercover on a bus full of drug mules, and at a traffic stop, he joins a mob of cops who bust the shipment and arrest everyone. As all the mules are being processed, one of them screams on Zhang, saying that he betrayed them. Without even changing his expression, Zhang just headbutts the guy in the fucking face, busts it wide open. Then, he sneers, "I didn't betray you. You're a drug smuggler. I'm a cop. I busted you." It's an absolutely cold hero moment. A scene later, though, Zhang is stuck waiting around for all these smugglers to shit out their coke baggies, then washing them off in the sink. It doesn't look like a fun job.
For much of its running time, Drug War isn't even an action movie. Instead, it's a tense police thriller about shifting loyalties and needing to trust people you can't possibly trust. It's a lot like The Departed, or more to the point like Infernal Affairs, the 2002 Hong Kong movie that inspired Martin Scorsese to make The Departed. It's dense and byzantine enough that you will go entire scenes without really knowing what's going on, but the performances are so strong that you just go with it anyway. As Zhang, Sun Honglei is especially great: There's a part where he has to impersonate a shipyard boss named Haha, a flamboyant weirdo who laughs constantly. During a meeting, a drug supplier forces him to snort a near-lethal amount of something or other, and he never breaks character even though he's close to dying. That means Sun has to play steely, intense Zhang as Zhang plays giggly, zonked-out Haha. He pulls it off completely.
If Drug War had stayed like this all the way through, it would've been a very good movie. But something happens in the back half that pushes it toward strange greatness. Eventually, we meet a pair of mute brothers who work for Timmy Choi, showing touching loyalty and doing whatever they can to help him get through some tough circumstances. They seem like lovely people, almost cartoonish embodiments of good even within a criminal enterprise. When shit goes down, though, these guys turn into stone-cold murder machines. And when those brothers pull out their guns, that's when Drug War throws out all its terse realism and becomes a bloodthirsty cartoon. Without giving too much away, it ends in a nearly 20-minute shootout, one of those absurdly blown-out battles where major characters just drop like bowling pins and almost nobody makes it out alive. It's a scene that proves, if we needed proof, that To belongs right up there with John Woo. The final shootout in 1992's Hard-Boiled remains the high-water mark in Hong Kong shoot-'em-ups, the unbeatable standard in onscreen badassery. The final shootout in Drug War isn't quite up to that level, but it's closer than I would've ever thought possible. And the final scene is a joke as black as any I've ever seen in an action movie. Woo couldn't have pulled off that one. Nobody else could've.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he's written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn't have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying "fuck it" and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we'll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Robocop | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi |Bloodsport | Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone |Fearless | Red Dawn| Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection| Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor | The Heroic Trio | Safe| Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd| 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master