After his meth factory is destroyed in an explosion, hospitalized drug lord Tian Ming (Louis Koo) attracts the attention of stoic police detective Zhang Lei (Honglei Sun). Eager to avoid lethal injection, Tian promises to lead this consummate flatfoot, who’s fresh off a massive dope bust, to an even bigger get: the shady figure(s) running much of China’s narcotics-trafficking regime. Not a bad setup for a cops-and-robbers thriller, and in the hands of action-movie maestro Johnnie To, the result comes very close to greatness.
This is the first of To’s films to have won approval from mainland censors, so gritty verisimilitude and an initially off-putting air of crime-doesn’t-pay moralism take the place of the director’s more expressionistic work (see 2006’s Exiled or 2008’s Sparrow). But To uses the stylistic and narrative restrictions to his advantage, while cannily casting Hong Kong performers as the criminals and Mainlanders as the cops to hint at the social and structural divides in contemporary Chinese culture. The genre thrills are as potent as the story’s themes: As Zhang descends deeper and deeper into the criminal underworld, To expertly ratchets up the tension, even in several sequences of characters in a room talking illegal trade. All roads converge in a climactic shoot-out that is as exhilarating as it is caustic—a ballet of bullets that effectively obliterates the line separating do-gooders and devils.
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