2012 / Johnnie To > Remember the self-righteous Hays Code (( It ruined the ending of many great films, including the otherwise perfect Witness for the Prosecution from the incomparable Billy Wilder.)) that plagued American cinema for over thirty years from the mid-30s into the late 60s? It’s alive and well now in Hong Kong thanks to the Chinese censors. With a population of only 8 million, the island depends on the earnings from a vast mainland audience, but in order to get there, it needs to appease the bodies that control their morality. And after Felix Chong and Alan Mak of Infernal Affairs fame (the film that The Departed was based on) failed at the task with their corporate thriller Overheard, one had hopes that the great Johnnie To would succeed.
In following up Life Without Principle, his most mediocre crime film in years, there’s ample evidence in Drug War to show that he was hamstrung by fear of censorship and general working conditions in the mainland. Gone is the tragic beauty of his Election duology and The Mission, films that are gritty, bleak but fantastic cinema due to their absurd realism—films that also could not be made with Chinese funding.
Fear not, though, Drug War is still a To film, which means it’s better than most cinema out there. The master pumps out a film a year with ease at a quality that’s unheard of. Even at its weakest points, the film is enjoyable—just not great or relatively memorable. The worst may be that we only get a couple of complex set pieces, for which To is known and much admired, and the simpler of which stands out for its efficiency and impact. But don’t compare this to the incredibly curated Exiled or the cinematic extravagance of Vengeance. In its effort to keep the story streamlined for a wider audience, Drug War misses out on too many of To’s staples and ends up brazenly two-dimensional.
The best part is Sun Honglei playing a shape shifting police captain who charms multiple sides of the coin. It’s a common plot tactic made great by his acting. Sadly, it’s the kind of performance you’d wish to see in a more memorable film. Add in the fact that nearly every other character in the film feels absurdly stock, it also devalues the performance of the seemingly overachieving Louis Koo, who still hasn’t matched his coolness factor from Accident. Again, it’s hard to not wonder if the flatness of the characters is to match the black and white moral codes of the censors. It’s frustrating to see the work of a heralded director pushed to the edge for potentially commercial purposes, but if it’s going to lead to Election 3, biting the bullet may end up being a worthy venture.