I absolutely love foreign action movies. Especially movies filmed in Hong Kong or Japan. My love for these movies definitely started with the work of John Woo. I’d still probably consider Hard Boiled to be my favorite action movie of all time. (I change my list of favorites frequently. Even if Hard Boiled wasn’t at the top of my list, it’s still incredible.)
While I am still a huge fan of John Woo’s work, the unfortunate thing is that his last great movie was Face/Off which came out in 1997. Since then he hasn’t really made any movie worth noting.
There is, however, a spiritual successor to Woo. His name is Johnny To.
Johnny To, unlike John Woo, is an incredibly prolific filmmaker who makes movies in a wide variety of genres. (This is something I was actually unaware of. I thought he had only made violent heroic bloodshed movies. I plan on investigating his other work in the near future.)
All the movies of To’s that I’ve seen are action movies and they’re incredible. They’re definitely violent. I think the draw is how the action is always clearly defined on screen. Even better is that To has a strong sense of style that makes the action always quite unique.
On top of that, To knows to give the character’s in his films a lot of care. Too many times an action filmmaker will forgo character work and pile on the action — much to a film’s detriment.
This all brings me to To’s latest movie, Drug War.
The story is about a high ranking anti-drug cop who makes an uneasy alliance with a high ranking meth manufacturer. It’s a tried-and-true premise, but what really sets it apart from other movies is the characterizations of the cop and criminal.
The cop is a no nonsense type who will do just about anything to stop the drug trade in his city. The thing is, he’s kind of a show off. He puts on this stoic demeanor but for most of the movie he’s adopting different personas while undercover. During the movie you get the sense that he might really enjoy that part of the job.
The criminal is also stoic. What sets him apart from being a cliche is a bit spoiler-ish. All I’ll say is that his character’s personality seems to be all over the map but it all comes from a place of consistency. He’s a wily one. It’s very entertaining to watch him look for all the angles in whatever he’s doing.
Another great part of the movie is how tense it is. The movie is pretty much one long series of encounters where the cops get themselves into a situation and barely scrape out. In an interesting creative choice, most of the movie’s most tense scenes play out in relative silence. There’s not much in the way of a musical score. The characters only seem to talk when they absolutely have to. In fact, two supporting characters are deaf. Silence is important stylistically and thematically.
Even the few action scenes in the movie play out to silence. Most of what’s heard on screen is dialogue and gunshots. The lack of musical score somehow increases the tension in the movie.
Drug War is an absolutely amazing piece of straight forward genre cinema. It’s a simple yet tense movie that has a surprising amount of depth to it.
Considering Johnny To has such a wide range of films under his belt, this could be a great introductory movie to watch if you’ve never seen any of his other work.