Brand-name Hong Kong action director Johnnie To (“Election”) teaches us a few things with his newly imported crime thriller, “Drug War.” For starters, we’re shown how closely China’s narcotics trade mirrors the West’s, from desperate mule runs to undercover busts. At the same time, we learn that the country has a zero-tolerance policy on meth manufacturing: Get caught cooking even a couple of ounces, and you get the death penalty. (Try doing that math, “Breaking Bad” fans.)
Something else we get from the movie: another inkling of the style limitations perhaps most responsible for To’s lower visibility stateside compared with, say, his countrymen John Woo and Wong Kar-wai.
Sun Honglei (“Seven Swords”) plays Zhang, a cop in the mainland Chinese city of Jinhai (new territory for To) hypervigilantly determined to keep drugs out of his jurisdiction. He gets the job done by any means necessary: a convincing deep-cover role, an unexpected head butt, whatever it takes. Zhang gets a huge crackdown opportunity when he lucks into arresting accident victim Timmy Choi (Louis Koo, “Election”), an underworld player eager to dodge his imminent execution by turning informant.
This partnership opens the door for serious doubts, of course — is Choi being straight with the police? — as well as Zhang’s flashiest undercover work yet, as a Choi associate seeking an introduction to the local kingpin. Impressively, Zhang is doing a spot-on impression of an actual member of Choi’s circle; distractingly, the guy is a chronically giddy character who goes by the moniker Haha. Now there’s the sort of thing genre fans don’t see every day — unless On Demand happens to be pushing “Dick Tracy” as one of the week’s free movie picks. It’s nice work by Sun, but an odd choice for the tonally straightforward story.
As the pressure-cooker police operation goes on, To throws in other unusual bits, prompting similar reactions of “Hmm, interesting” and “Huh?” Zhang at one point has to get high on his new connection’s supply, and then put himself through frantic makeshift detox. Choi talks business with his meth cooks, “the mute brothers,” in sign language. In ensuing climactic shootouts, a bathroom stall briefly becomes a sniper’s perch, and handcuffs take on all the strategic import of chess pieces. It’s clear To is striving to keep the action gripping and creative. Modestly inspired is more like it.