Extraordinary Mission (China, 2017) [NYAFF 2017]
When a film’s title boldly proclaims that the audience is going to see something astounding, the content usually either lives up to the superlative or flames out, with the moniker being jokingly used to underscore the failings of the end result. Extraordinary Mission falls somewhere in-between with an action-packed undercover cop saga that is undeniably polished but somehow difficult to get excited about. On the one hand, Hong Kong genre stalwarts Felix Chong and Alan Mak (the former credited here as screenwriter, the latter as co-director with cinematographer Anthony Pun) are working within the wheelhouse they established with the classic Infernal Affairs (2002) and consolidated with the likes of Confession of Pain (2006) and the Overheard series (2009, 2011, 2014). On the other, the clear moral coding required by the project’s mainland China backers has stripped their trademark underworld machinations of much of their complexity while pushing for a box office smash by equipping the filmmakers with a budget that covers some seriously heavy artillery.
This time around, their mole is fiercely committed cop Liu Haojun (Xuan Huang) who has infiltrated a narcotics network under the alias of Lin Kai. Having worked alongside drugs trafficker Cheng Yi (Wang Yanhui) for a number of years in the fictional South China industrial city of Yunlai, the undercover operative has gathered plenty of evidence but has been unable to connect it to the government’s main target, cartel figurehead Eagle (Duan Yihong) who runs his empire from the Golden Triangle. Liu gets his chance, though, when he is actually escorted to Eagle after a drug bust results in Liu’s identity being questioned by a fellow gang member. Turning a life-threatening situation to his advantage, Liu convinces Eagle of his loyalty and gains deeper access to the operation, although a still suspicious Eagle aims to keep Liu under his control by turning him into a morphine addict.
There are initial indications that the first draft of Extraordinary Mission may have followed the lead of Johnnie To’s rigorous procedural Drug War (2012) with steely images of a grim municipality and a sketch of how a major narcotics business can thrive within markets and factories if sufficient pay-offs are made. However, an early car chase signals the film’s dominant tone – a clandestine pursuit down back roads exhibits a stealthy quality until some flashy stunts are thrown in to show how badass the hero is. It’s as if the creative participants have been tasked with replicating the commercial success of Dante Lam’s explosive patriotic extravaganza Operation Mekong (2016) since an atmospheric thriller is suddenly hijacked by a blockbuster agenda. The action sequences are solidly handled throughout, with the real spectacle saved for the final twenty minutes where a city becomes the stage for a blazing showdown that throws in rooftop running, car crashes, motorcycle jumps, and tons of firepower. By this point, it’s almost a relief to see Extraordinary Mission drop its pretense to be a serious thriller as credibility is jettisoned in the second act with too many plot holes surrounding Liu’s ability to earn the grudging trust of Eagle and his close-knit crew, despite only having a few fake identity cards to back-up his story.
Embracing his chance to achieve action hero status, Xuan gamely tackles the physical challenges of the role but his determined cop remains a blank protagonist. As Liu’s motivation for his crusade comes from stock – in flashbacks we see how he lost his mother at a young age as a result of her drug habit – the main character is often left to come across as a propaganda tool, especially when his dynamics with other significant characters result in little conflict. Despite a commanding performance from Duan, which serves as the polar opposite of the noble police chief he masterfully played in The Dead End (2015), there is never any sense that Liu is remotely seduced by Eagle’s power. Meanwhile, Liu’s relationship with his handler, Li Jianguo (Zu Feng), is one of brotherly respect and never troubled by any sense he is being exploited by his superior. Compared to Derek Yee’s thriller Protégé (2007), it’s a simplistic take on a situation that should raise issues of personal identity and professional loyalty.
With the main players largely defined as good guys or bad guys, Mak and Tun utilise sun-drenched Thailand locations to generate a measure of sweaty tension, while relying on a perfunctory score by Chen Guangrong, which blends local elements with overly familiar electronic beats. Fans of Asian action cinema may be satisfied by the abundant pyrotechnics, but most will likely agree that “Efficient Mission”, “Good Job” or “Solid Work” would be more appropriate titles.
Extraordinary Mission is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Saturday July 1 at the Walter Reade Theater at 7:30pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.