From time to time, to varying degrees of tongue in cheek, you see fictional drug dealers and gangsters touted for their CEO skills — witness Forbes last year glibly offering "7 Career Lessons from Breaking Bad's Walter White." (His retirement options have taken a hit since then, of course, as have a few DEA agents — but hey, things are tough all over.) The underlying idea is that running a business can be a lot like managing a criminal empire, but Johnnie To's crime epics eliminate the metaphor: Crime is a business, waged both in boardrooms and with bullets. The Hong Kong director's current U.S. release, Drug War, his most exciting action thriller in years, is something of a primer in the kind of trade negotiations they don't teach in MBA programs — e.g., how many lines of coke you should ingest to sufficiently satisfy your new associate that he shouldn't kill you.
Snatched by the cops, mainland Chinese drug kingpin Timmy Choi (Louis Koo, from To's Election diptych) agrees to turn on his associates and help hangdog task-force leader Capt. Zhang (Sun Honglei) take down the reputed Mr. Big. After a deftly staged opening tollbooth bust, that process boils down largely to quiet but hair-raising undercover standoffs conducted while sitting around tables — high-stakes corporate brinkmanship that depends on stone-faced Zhang's ability to impersonate a giggly crook known for good reason as Haha. (The most clever of these scenes is a tabletop chess game with one active piece: a hidden camera whose crucial POV keeps getting thwarted.) Picture scene after scene of deliberately unreadable hoods, each as hair-trigger volatile as Joe Pesci's GoodFellas psycho, laying out trust-building tasks of escalating difficulty — say, howzabout clearing that harbor of docked freighters with a phone call? — and you'll imagine the level of tension To's able to generate.
Penned by four credited screenwriters, including To's longtime collaborator Wai Ka-Fai, Drug War is essentially a series of increasingly bigger, more threatening setpieces. To pays as much attention to the drug trade's inner machinery as he does to the physically vulnerable peons who form its cogs: Bodily functions call attention throughout to the grubby, humdrum humanity on either side of the law. When violence comes, it's not the kicky hyperbole of To's The Heroic Trio and Fulltime Killer, although To stages it with a sure sense of geography and a shitload of firepower: it's brutal, ugly, and point-blank in its refusal to spare the good guys. Pretty much all we know, or learn, about the cops and crooks here is how they work. As it turns out, we don't know them as well as we or they think — just enough, during the apocalyptic finale, for the shots to hurt.
Drug War carries the premise to its logical outcome: a different kind of killing machinery, a different employer, but the same lethal result — even delivered with a needle's sting. Evoking only a sliver of the complexity (and casualties) of the real-life drug war, the complicated plot nonetheless evokes a kind of moral dislocation. One crooked choice leads to mazes of corruption, and the last man standing finds himself in bewildered desperation. If watching one of Johnnie To's convoluted crime sagas seems confusing, try living in one.