Drug War by Johnnie To

Drug War by Johnnie To

Police captain Zhang (played by Sun Honglei) partners with a drug lord named Timmy Choi (played by Louis Koo) after he is arrested. To avoid the death penalty, Choi agrees to reveal information about his partners who operate a cocaine ring. Zhang grows suspicious of Choi’s honesty as several police officers began a raid on the drug ring.

Drug War is a crime film made and released in Mainland China by a Hong Kong film company. Naturally there is going to be an element of political compromise. All the policemen are Mainland Chinese and all the drug dealers are from Hong Kong (Take a guess which side wins in the end). Nationalism in movies has never really bothered me unless it’s oozing with disgustingness (i.e. Michael Bay’s Armageddon). That is not the case here and I don’t have a problem with that. My interest is not the politics, but rather what Johnnie To will bring to drug film set in Mainland China. The answer? Not too much.

What’s missing from Drug War are the Johnnie To quirks. The zany off-the-wall characters who have speech impediments and odd ticks are gone. The dramatic noir lighting, minimalistic stage-like blocking or themes of brotherhood are gone. Even the gunplay is less stylized and presented in a realistic fashion. I don’t miss any of these specific quirks or tropes, but without the idiosyncratic Johnnie To stamp, what’s left is a very straightforward police procedural.

The characters are servicing the plot, which is odd for a Johnnie To film because usually it’s the other way round. We don’t get insight into the distinct personalities of the drug dealers or police officers and their relationships (like in Election, an ensemble piece where it manages to characterize the supporting characters). We don’t know if they have family members or girlfriends waiting for them at home or any backstory. The story is simply moving beat-by-beat linearly on the central question of how trustworthy Louis Koo’s drug lord character is. There’s nobody you’re supposed to be rooting for, but things are continually changing and you simply watch awaiting the final outcome.

To, a director and producer with his own production company, has always been best when he has free reign. The limits of To’s free reign authorship is that he is very culturally rooted to Hong Kong and possesses a firm voice regarding to its politics (Election), economic condition (Life Without Principle), daily life in Hong Kong (the office politics in Needing You), or even local nostalgia (Throwdown, Sparrow). As exemplified in 2008’s Vengeance, a project which was co-financed by French financiers and starred French rock singer Johnny Halliday, To’s directorial voice is weaker when he steps outside of his comfort zone. The three Hong Kong actors casted alongside Johnny Halliday to couch the star for two thirds of Vengeance mirrors the Milkyway regulars who show up as the seven Hong Kong drug bosses in Drug War’s denouement. It’s like he is trying to recalibrate the film by filling it with things he’s familiar with. However, there is no sense of To’s personal perspective on the topic of drug running, drug addiction, crime or how the police work in China through the film’s story, themes or characters. That makes a bit tame because To has fared much better in the past.

In context to Johnnie To’s back catalogue, Drug War will be remembered for pushing the boundaries with the Chinese Film Bureau. The Mainland police are shown working undercover and solving crimes, having gun battles with criminals and some even dying in the line of duty; these are all images that were previously not allowed to be shown in a Mainland theatrical release. Yet now we are seeing them onscreen. So that is a proper achievement that’s worth celebrating. The final product is probably more telling of Chinese film censorship than of To’s directorial sensibilities. But I can’t help but think that there is a grittier, nuttier version of Drug War lying in the corner of Johnnie To’s desk that is stamped “rejected”, namely the version of the story that he didn’t get to make.

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Colombiana by Olivier Megaton

Colombiana by Olivier Megaton

Colombiana by Olivier Megaton

Colombiana is another Luc Besson-produced action romp starring Zoe Saldana, directed by Olivier Megaton (the best director’s name ever).

The story: A young girl named Cataleya Restrepo’s (played by Zoe Saldana) parents are killed by mobsters in Colombia. She escapes to the United States and trains herself into an assassin with the help of her uncle Emilio (played by Cliff Curtis). Suffice to say, she exacts revenge on the Colombian mobsters.

There are ridiculous moments in the story that feign B-movie sensibilities but never goes extreme enough for it to register as funny to the audience. It throws the film off tonally. There’s a scene where a young Cataleya (played very nicely by young child actress Amandla Stenberg) pleads for her uncle Emilio to train her into an assassin. He agrees and registers her into an elementary school. She questions his actions, thinking he broken his promise. Uncle Emilio takes out a gun and unloads it into a car on the street until it crashes on the sidewalk. He turns to the young Cataleya and explains that to be an assassin, one must knows how the world works and the only way to learn that is in school. As he is saying this, the police are pulling into the street and interviewing bystanders about the accident. Cataleya and Uncle Emilio slowly walk away from the scene of the crime. Was I supposed to laugh at that? Or was that I supposed to be moved by Uncle Emilio’s mentorship on how to be an assassin? Shouldn’t assassins be discreet?

The editing is insanely frenetic, you end up getting a sum-up of the entire fight than experiencing the entire beats of an engagement. The action sequence that I really enjoyed was the one where Zoe Saldana makes a kill in a police station. She uses her slim frame to her advantage and that was a nice attempt to explain why an assassin might be that skinny. Even though that would be the only advantage when you stop to think about it.

Cataleya is a very determined but ultimately a very unlikable character. She is trying to avenge the death of her parents, but ends up doing something immoral in the third act that makes her come off more like a sociopath than a hero. The character lacked a moral code that was necessary for the audience to really engage with her. It was like if Batman threatened to kill a criminal’s parents in order to squeeze information out of him. What the movie supplants for character likability is that the film expects you to be  totally physically infatuated with Zoe Saldana. The film really hangs on that, which creates a very strong pornographic sensibility running beneath this film. There are many instances where Zoe Saldana is not wearing a brassiere and is “nipping” through her clothes and the cinematography is directed to gazing at her.

The love story between Zoe Saldana and Michael Vartan was unconvincing. She visits him in his artist studio apartment and they have sex. That’s the entire dynamic of their relationship. There’s a scene where he asks her to tell him something about herself and the film forces a deeper emotional connection that I did not buy. He tells a friend about her later in a cafe and can only describe her as “she has a great body, pretty face and I can’t stop thinking about her.” The film does not provide any humanity for Cataleya other than being very attractive and wanting revenge. The villains are not even developed either. Say what you will about Rambo 4, but the opening sequence in Burma where the soldiers bet on their prisoners walking across land mines made me hate them instantly. And that worked! This did not work, because I do not know the villains at all.

I am not the kind of guy that thinks a woman with a gun shooting people is equal to a strong woman. Having previously played  strong and much better written female characters (Uhura in Star Trek), Zoe Saldana really deserves something better. I liked the previous Luc Besson-produced action films such as Danny the Dog/Unleashed, Taken and yes, even From Paris with Love. They have done better than this in the past, so I can only say Colombiana was a bit of a miss.

On another note, I’m seriously considering legally changing my name to “Megaton”.