Johnnie To is the best action director in the world and one of the greatest of all time. Full stop, period, the end. Many people would agree because of his movies’ most obvious virtue: Flabbergasting cutting that, once the bullets start flying (and boy, do they fly), is faster then, well, a speeding bullet.
But that is only part of the picture. While he has his foot on the accelerator, To keeps a sharp eye out for where he is and where he’s going. No matter how (relatively) slowly or quickly he edits, he always makes sure to define dramatic space with exactitude. The characters’ placement relative to one another is never in question, so the audience knows exactly where everyone is without have to strain their brains. The ability to define action space with some – any — skill is an absent art Hollywood these days, with no more than four or five filmmakers displaying any mastery of it.
To doesn’t substitute cutting for action within the frame, either. Whether he’s pulling back for a long shot of a car careering down an isolated, empty highway or moving in for a medium close-up of the man behind the wheel — who is woozily trying to maintain his attention while blood leaks from a wound – he forces you to concentrate on each images, rather than distracting you with the bells and whistles of meaningless quick cuts. He’ll even use deep focus in those action shots, with, say, a shot of a burning building, viewed from within the car, receding into the distance. (The foregoing is a rough description of the opening scene of Drug War, the latest To to make it into the U.S.)
To’s brilliance, which can seem boundless, includes defining action as its absence. Typically during a To action film (he also makes comedies, romances and period films), there comes a moment when the characters come to a complete standstill, with even their faces frozen into emotionless masks. But there is a tension here – emotional torque – the signals an oncoming sequence of utter mayhem. I’m not sure there is anyone else in the world who can wring so much from a shot of someone just sitting there.
Drug War, the first To movie to be shot entirely in mainland China, sets a municipal police anti-drug squad, headed by Capt. Zhang, against a large drug syndicate. Zhang and his officers have arrested a medium-level meth producer, Tommy Choi, who promises to spill the beans on a huge drug deal in response for leniency. Zhang, with reservations, agrees to the deal because of the rare opportunity to nab some bigwigs. But while Zhang is steadfast and trustworthy, Choi turns out to be a habitual sell-out artist, double-dealing on his own double deals.
To’s action films frequently feature this kind of exigent partnership, two parties with complementary short-term goals but long-term goals which are at lethal odds. Neither partner can ever be sure which end the other is pursuing at any given moment.
Drug War is set in one of those vast, Chinese urban centers, full of industrial sites and cruddy-looking apartment buildings; it makes you wonder what people are ultimately waging war over. Although compared to the drug gangs the police don’t appear to be particularly brutal, they’re not above beating prisoners or like behaviors.
Despite mainland censorship, To has been able to depict a China suffused with corruption, just like Hong Kong, To’s home base.
Maybe Chinese bureaucrats didn’t want to get in the way of a good movie. Because that’s what To has come up with. No, let’s allow the superlatives to flow, because Drug War has earned them. It’s exciting and mind-blowing – brilliant.
In other words, it’s a Johnnie To movie.
If you’d like to read an interview I did with To in March, 2003, you can go to my archive site henrysheehan.com. Here’s the link: