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Johnny To has my attention since he made “Vengeance” and avoided a lot of annoying Hongkong action movie stereotypes. Drug War goes one step further and comes across like a police procedural that could just as well have its space in a tv show. A good tv show. The effort of a drug agency investigator to hunt down a cartel of Hongkong mobsters making their fortune on China’s mainland is complex and complicated, but it’s hardly ever over the top (maybe with the exception of a role playing game that stretches credulity). It is a stealth man hunt (or men hunt) that takes place across Shandong province, that hardly involves large-scale action, never needs to fall back on the slow-mo and martial arts nonsense that used to be so inavoidable in Hongkong action pictures. There is a need to investigate, to pursue, and to deceive the bad guys, and when you do that, it may happen that you need to turn your own bad sides to the outside, as well. This is most apparent in the opening sequence, where a group of drug mules is busted and interrogated – after seeing this, you clearly do not want to get caught up with that kind of business in China. The bust leads to a trace, provided by a turncloak, and handling that guy, never knowing whether he is a credible help or merely a cunning double agent between the drug mafia and the police, makes a large part of the film’s tension.

This is low-key, high-tension cinema by an extremely skilled director, with excellent actors almost throughout the cast. Splendidly entertaining, never shallow.

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