Watch This offers movie recommendations inspired by new releases or premieres, or occasionally our own inscrutable whims. This week, as the galaxy’s most popular smuggler returns to the big screen in Solo: A Star Wars Story, we’re taking a look at some of our favorite movies about charismatic crooks and cons.
One of the first images you see in Drug War is a plastic bottle full of what you have to assume is human urine. Two wild-eyed delivery truck drivers are at a tollbooth in some gray expanse of post-industrial China, where factories jut out of the barren fields like broken limbs. Within 10 minutes, you’re watching drug mules crouching over turquoise buckets, groaning and weeping as they shit out little passels of excrement-covered methamphetamine. But the film, directed by the versatile and prolific Johnnie To, isn’t some lurid descent into a criminal otherworld, but rather a remarkably sober examination of the drug trade’s logistics. Everyone’s moving something in Drug War; bodies are just another vessel, albeit a uniquely volatile one.
The bug in the operation is Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a mid-level manager of this supply chain who gets flipped in the early going by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei). You never quite get a bead on either character for most of Drug War, thanks in part to To’s camerawork, slowly gliding over evidence and information, with ’70s-style slow zooms that don’t so much raise tension as emphasize data points. Choi takes to being a rat with an eerie relish, deciphering codes for the cops, offering unsolicited names and specifics, and placing phone calls to other links in the chain so as to keep things moving unhindered. Zhang, meanwhile, remains indecipherable thanks to a bravura early scene in which he is forced to go undercover as both sides of a drug deal: first as the icy supplier to the giggly, loopy manufacturer, and then vice versa, disappearing into each person’s mannerisms even as he’s forced to ingest small mountains of high-grade meth. Afterward, Choi talks him through the near-overdose, and To’s camera loses its cool, filming Zhang vomiting into a sink like the final punch in an action scene. But it’s all cause and effect here—drugs moving in and out, another body under duress.
There’s an almost documentarian silence as they chase this operation through hotels, highways, and sleazy night clubs, locations seemingly chosen for a dinginess that refuses to grant the film an operatic air. To, working with regular cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung, finds a tough visual poetry in these spaces, especially a seaside port full of flapping tarps, face-masked fishmongers, and endless steel masts forming a latticework against the sky.
The double-drug deal is followed up by two more masterfully executed set pieces, the first a raid on a warehouse operated by a pair of deaf brothers that lets To flex some of the technical and literal firepower that defined his earlier action filmmaking. (Even as charges are detonated and sirens blare, one brother remains blissfully unaware, because he is—where else?—on the toilet.) I won’t reveal the button-pushing location of the final set piece, but it’s yet another tactical, geographical choice in a film obsessed with them, and one that reveals with finality the true character of the movie’s enigmatic leads. The film’s punctuation comes not via the endless mists of blood that spray out in these geometric gunfights, but through an almost comical denouement in which one last batch of drugs is pushed into one last body, a journey coming to its inevitable end.
Availability: Drug War is available to rent or buy through all the major streaming sites. It can also be obtained on DVD or Blu-ray from Netflix, Amazon, or possibly your local video store/library.