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Extraordinary Mission
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by Jay Seaver

"Extraordinary action, ordinary mission."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2017 NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: Whether or not you feel that "Extraordinary Mission" lives up to its title likely depends on just how you define "extraordinary". It's not unusual in story - this sort of tale of long-term undercover operations and spectacular drug busts has been done before, and doesn't have the particularly clever twists that director Alan Mak Siu-fai and writer Felix Chong Man-keung pulled off as part of the teams making the "Infernal Affairs" and "Overheard" series. When it comes to flat-out action, on the other hand, it eventually earns comparison to "Operation Mekong", another recent movie with similar themes, in terms of just how much damage it can dish out before finally winding down.

It opens with Lin Kai (Huang Xuan) telling the audience he is a drug trafficker and must never forget that, helping kingpin Cheng Yi (David Wang Yao-qing) distribute his product around the city of Yunlai. This particular night, he is stopped on a bridge in a suspiciously well-timed bust, which is how he learns that Yi will occasionally give up someone minor so that Wang Bo (Zhao Bingrui), a corrupt local narcotics cop, can keep his arrest numbers up. When Lin Kai escapes, Yi protests that this was an accident - someone less valuable was meant to go - and it's good in a number of ways, because Lin Kai has been undercover for three years, working for Captain Li Jianguo (Xing Jiadong) to find Yi's supplier "Eagle" (Duan Yihong), somewhere in the Golden Triangle.

To the filmmakers' credit, there's a pretty good rhythm at both ends of the film as the messy failed bust at the start leads to Yi trying to serve up one of Eagle's lieutenants to Wang as compensation, and then at the end when things suddenly become an intensely personal rescue mission practically out of nowhere. It's not just that the action is good - and, boy, it is - but that there's a loose, improvisational feel to what everyone's doing, and the heightened craziness is less foreordained than crazy things happening in extreme circumstances. It's in the middle that things start to flag badly, as everybody gets a backstory and a bunch of flashbacks explaining their motivation, as well as another subplot that fills a little time and moves a couple of pieces around in a way that will be completely forgotten whenever anyone relates the good parts to a friend later.

It's even more pointless when you consider that all that attempt at characterization isn't really going to amount to much; the good cops are too pure to ever doubt, the drug kingpins are too cruel to be redeemed, and even if the folks in the middle weren't up against the fairly strict rules for what happens in a Mainland Chinese crime movie, they aren't going to be allowed to outshine the stars. So, for the most part, there's a bunch of bland performances up on screen, with Huang Xuan really only coming alive during the action and not having the sort of chemistry with Lang Yueting (as one of Eagle's lieutenants) that could fuel a good redemption arc. Duan Yihong and David Wang do okay when tossed occasional bits of scenery to chew, but after that, it's a bunch of unmemorable, but not embarrassing, work from the actors.

But, when it's time to blow things up? Things get fun in a hurry, so long as your definition of fun stretches ot include fast-paced gun fu, cars smashing each other around, large explosions, and hails of bullets that kill anonymous drivers so that cars go careening off the road but just seem to fuel the epic hatred two long-time archenemies feel. This sense of invention is not entirely applied to violence - the way drugs and money are exchanged in the handoff seems unlikely but creative enough to forgive - but that's where it's at its best as Huang proves a quick-footed and effective screen fighter, with Mak's directing partner and cinematographer Fletcher Poon Yiu-ming showing a real knack for making action director Nicky Li Chung-chi's choreography clear. The last act is where the over-the-top insanity is at its best, with a long car chase, pistols giving way to machine guns giving way to rocket launchers, and just a ton of stuff that is probably not actually possible on a motorcycle and which would likely be very dangerous for the rider if it was. It's madness, but a madness that never fails to entertain.

Pull that big finish closer to the opening that chugs along at a great pace somehow, and you'd have one heck of a well-done, if derivative, action movie. It loses a fair amount of impact getting from A to C, enough to make this "Mission" a bit of a disappointment as a whole, but certainly does a few things very well indeed.

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originally posted: 07/02/17 13:51:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2017 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2017 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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  06-Apr-2017 (MA)

Directed by
  Alan Mak
  Anthony Pun

Written by
  Felix Chong

  Yihong Duan
  Xuan Huang
  Yueting Lang
  Jiadong Xing
  Feng Zu

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