Directed by Johnnie To
You could call this an action movie, especially because of its subject matter, but there's not much action for more than an hour. Instead, director To's latest feels more like a horror movie, a series of super suspenseful set pieces involving Chinese anti-drug police trying to take down a large syndicate. Louis Koo (from To's Election dilogy) plays a meth cooker whose factory explodes, killing his wife and brothers-in-law; he's taken into police custody and, to avoid the death penalty (because in China manufacturing relatively small amounts of methamphetamine carries a death sentence), he agrees to help the local captain (Sun Honglei) infiltrate the larger network.
To is a genre master, and this is a masterwork of basic construction, moving forward smoothly and with great, though not flamboyant, style. (Favorite moment: the meth factory at which everyone speaks sign language—and at which happens the film's one emotional scene. To evokes his characters' feelings through action, not words.) His cop-characters are like him—filmmakers putting on a show: they set up cameras (spy cameras), pick out wardrobes (to go undercover), and play characters (Sun, showcasing an impressive range, plays a stone-faced connect in a scene with a distributor, and the buffoonish distributor in the following scene with the connect) while others watch on the monitors; they direct other characters.
But they're not filming a movie; for them, it's life and death, which To doesn't shy away from. Spoiler alert: by the end, every character dies. The director doesn't let either side claim to be the "good guys"; the cops and the drug kingpins annihilate each other in an epic final showdown that suggests each is equally culpable for the death and violence that results from the illegal drug trade. Koo betrays both sides to facilitate this bloodbath, presumably to avenge his dead wife, but in the end not even he's spared. It's hard to say whether that choice was To's or the Chinese censors'.
Opens July 26