Drug War (2013)

3.5 stars

A violent climactic showdown between cops and drug dealers redeems this part-intriguing, part-draggy work by Johnnie To.

Dir. Johnnie To
2013 | Hong Kong/China | Action/Crime/Drama | 107 mins | 2.35: 1 | Mandarin & Cantonese
NC16 (passed clean) for violence and drug use

Cast: Louis Koo, Sun Honglei, Huang Yi
Plot: A drug cartel boss who is arrested in a raid is coerced into betraying his former accomplices as part of an undercover operation.
Awards: Nom. for Big Screen Award (Rotterdam).  Nom. for 4 Golden Horses – Best Feature Film, Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Film Editing
International Sales: Media Asia Distribution

Accessibility Index
Subject Matter: Moderate
Narrative Style: Slightly Complex
Pace: Slightly Slow
Audience Type: Slightly Mainstream


Review #882

(Reviewed in theatres – first published 18 Apr 2013)

Spoilers: No

The drug trafficking industry messes people’s lives up. So it is high time the authorities really start messing criminals’ lives up too. In this new crime-thriller by Johnnie To, the police do just that.

The ‘drug war’ is a crafty affair from both sides of the law, but it inevitably ends in bloody carnage, which director To gleefully obliges in the long-drawn climactic shootout. That is quite rightly the best part of the film, with To flaunting his mastery of staging intense action gunfights. However, the build-up to the final act is another story altogether.

Much of the film after its arresting first twenty minutes suffer from a pacing that feels too slow for a picture belonging to this genre, and this is despite the editing and use of music attempting to keep proceedings urgent.

There are two endings to this film, where one of them is China’s ‘censored’ version.

Yes, the cops play a waiting game, and we wait along with them. Sometimes the undercover operation intrigues as the cops impersonate drug dealers and play a complicated and dangerous spying game; at other times, elements of the undercover procedural becomes too repetitive and doesn’t quite sustain the viewer’s interest.

The performances are at least decent with Sun Honglei playing a police captain with an infiltrator mentality. He employs the help of a captured drug cartel boss (Louis Koo) who wants to redeem himself and avoid the death sentence by leading the cops into the big kill.

The stakes are high, but To doesn’t quite deliver the suspense to its fullest potential. I think he has played too much of a waiting game in this film. Thankfully, there is a payoff – the quite satisfying violent finale that everyone could see coming.

Drug War may have its flaws, but it will probably be one of the better Hong Kong crime-thrillers to emerge this year. It may not come close to the top-tier of To’s filmography, but it contains a few memorable action moments that could be considered as some of the best staged in To’s canon.

Grade: B



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