The latest film of Johnnie To is an antidote to what ails Hollywood. While action films like Man of Steel, Catching Fire and The Desolation of Smaug run over 2 hours with a lot of downtime, Drug War is lean, tight and a fraction of the runtime. To’s taken narrative storytelling and distilled it down to its essence. The result is something that might not be as ambitious or epic, but is purer and more elegant in its minimalism and simplicity.
Zhang Lei (Honglei Sun) and Yang Xiaobei (Yi Huang) are after the local drug lord. After one of the cooking houses blows up, they’re able to nab Timmy (Louis Koo) and convince him to work undercover for them in exchange for his life.
For a film not even two hours, the film is a slow burn. Instead of pacing out action sequences, the film builds towards a couple of late sequences that are epic. Along the way, the film teases moments that could turn into big shootouts or chase scenes but fizzle out quickly instead. The slowly, building anticipation makes the final few set pieces all the more satisfying and they’re able to feel epic without being overindulgent (unlike every action sequence in The Desolation of Smaug).
On the other hand, in many of the exposition scenes, the film is fast and doesn’t slow down to lecture to the audience. One of the best examples is when Zhang and Yang are trying to pick up a couple of leads on the case. Instead of following one lead and then the next, the two are figuring out both leads at the same time, in the same room, and having a conversation about it. The economy of exposition means if you aren’t paying attention you miss what happens.
The undercover sequences are also fast and clever. The film still takes time to slowly build them, but moments than another action film would linger on to create tension, quickly fly by as moments that are tense only because of how fast they could have gone bad in the blink of an eye. Once again, the film assumes the audience is paying attention.
When things finally do blow, and the action happens, Drug War is elegant in its movements. The violence flows, the way it’s edited together creates a constant sense of movement in space and a tension from multiple, converging directions. It would be easy for this to be disorienting and chaotic, but the continuity of space is impeccably preserved.
One could complain that for all its thrills, Drug War is soulless. Yes, it lacks the depth of character or human element of other stories, but that isn’t to say there’s not a human drama going on here. Timmy’s journey throughout the film is complex and left mostly unexplained. The film doesn’t try give him a strong motivation, but it also demonstrates the vicious desperation of survival and there horrors people will go through and leave in their wake. It culminates in a harrowing image of the weigh Timmy bears for his actions.
While action films continue to grow longer and longer in American, films like Drug War do twice as much in half the space. Bigger isn’t better. Two epic action scenes might trump five action sequences that overstay their welcome. More backstory doesn’t automatically elicit more sympathy. Drug War understands this and the result is a film that doesn’t waste the audience’s time and accomplishes more than films twice its runtime.
© 2013 James Blake Ewing