Here in the land of the free, we often complain about how lame the drug laws in America are, and for good reason. Mandatory sentencing tears families and lives apart, drug busts and their massive budgets encourage the further militarization of the police, and, like, is a dude with a couple ounces of weed really that big of a threat to the American people?

As bad as we have it, though, there’s no denying that other countries have it worse. Take China, for example: while cooking a bunch of meth in America can get you a bunch of jail time, in China, cooking a bunch of meth can get you dead.

But of course, just like in America, where there’s people, money, and people with too much money, drugs will always find a way in – just with much higher stakes.

In his first mainland China film, 2012’s DRUG WAR, Hong Kong director Johnnie To seizes those stakes with a ferociousness only to be matched by red neck state troopers busting some teens on their first date with Molly. Centered around a meth manufacturer named Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), DRUG WAR first sees Choi getting busted and sentenced to death following the explosion of his lab. A whole a lot of other stuff goes down in the first few minutes, too, and it was actually pretty damn confusing; fortunately, the plot becomes more followable once To gets all the major characters introduced.

Before China can bring down the axe on Choi, however, he gets another chance at life from Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei): if he can help break down the meth ring at large, he can live to fight another day.. . aka, spend the rest of his life in prison. Choi agrees and begins helping… only thing is, just how much can Zhang trust Choi?

DRUG WAR stands as a perfect example of why the Hong Kong action genre is such a perfect genre for films like this – and why a move to shooting in the mainland is a breath of fresh air for it. The traditional tight action sequences are coupled here with the expansive settings of the mainland rather than the often claustrophobic Hong Kong. Instead of a series of hallway battles and cars racing down cramped streets, we get foot chases through open fields and brawls on the side of pitch black highways – without losing any of the form.

Excellent though these action sequences may be, the real meat – as with many Hong Kong films – lies with the interpersonal tension and conflict that drive the violence of the film. The film sees Choi and Zhang duke it out as if their lives depended on it, and, in a way, they do. Obviously, Choi is marked for death and seeks to stay alive, while Zhang has placed his professional life on the line (though – without giving too much away – he does brush with death more than a few times over the film’s 107 minutes).

In an interesting twist, however, the condemned Choi’s sentence almost gives him more freedom to live than Zhang. In the death-filled meth world of China, the already dead man has nothing to lose and everything to gain. Zhang, while technically a free man, has both the respect and the lives of his men riding on Choi’s cooperation, thus he is imprisoned by the stress of these responsibilities.

As you would hope, none of this slips past the actors, who do a wonderful job. Louis Koo’s Choi is a bad-ass, pathetic wretch, and evil incarnate who can cycle through these personalities seemingly at will while Sun Honglei plays a masterful brilliant, tough-but-not-too tough cop. The minor characters and different drug dealers were cast perfectly as well. In particular, the always laughing, goofy ass of a drug lord, HaHa (Hao Ping), was a spectacle to behold – and even more of one when the stoic and serious Zhang must assume his identity when meeting another drug lord.

As with any film, when the different facets of directing, plot, cinematography, and acting unite, the final product is one certainly worth seeing.

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