Felix Chong and Alan Mak are among the best thriller writers in Hong Kong, having written Infernal Affairs for Andrew Lau and written and directed the Overheard movies, which dealt with crime, surveillance, and politics. Extraordinary Mission, written by Chong and co-directed by Mak and Anthony Pun, sees them bringing their genre expertise to the undercover thriller in China.
Stoic cop Lin Kai is sent undercover to infiltrate a drug cartel bringing heroin into China. He finds himself getting deeper and deeper, being tortured and forced into addiction, then kicking the addiction and getting into the cartel’s inner circle in the Golden Triangle. The head of the cartel, Eagle, is a scarred psychopath with a personal grudge against Lin Kai’s captain, and the game of cat-and-mouse gets increasingly complicated.
The dark corners of undercover work is familiar from the heyday of Hong Kong cop thrillers, but without as much depth or charismatic heroes. Huang Xuan is a tireless actor who gets into the kinds of insanely dangerous stunts Jackie Chan used to do, but his supercop is a bit blank when compared with Hong Kong stars like Chow Yun-Fat or Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, who brought complexity, nuance and charisma to their roles as angst-ridden cops in the ’80s and ’90s. Maybe Mainland Chinese stories don’t demand complexity or nuance in their cop heroes so much as sheer stoicism. Duan Dihong gets more mileage playing Eagle, infusing a psychopath with enough quirks, nuances, and emotions to make the bad guy much more interesting than the heroes.
That doesn’t mean the plot doesn’t have the twists and turns that keep the movie humming, and it’s has the sheen of what you expect from good Hong Kong action thrillers at their peak, even if the characters are much less interesting. There is a climax with an extended shootout on the streets of Northern Thailand that’s as ambitious as a Michael Mann set piece, mixed with some Hong Kong-style craziness involving a running car chase and gun battle while Huang Xuan rides a motorcycle across the rooftops.
Extraordinary Mission is pulp fiction servicing a major piece of pro-police, anti-drugs propaganda given a Hong Kong action gloss. It’s all the twisty verve and crazy inventiveness of Hong Kong action cinema brought to Mainland crime thrillers, sticking to China’s strict censorship demands where the state, the authorities and the cops must always win and the bad guys must always lose — preferably bloodily — in a major firefight. The drug world is depicted as dark and dangerous, an invasion from abroad, and the Golden Triangle is of course a lawless Cartel netherworld that needs the full force of the Chinese state to attack and bring down. There’s betrayal and a stoical heroic sacrifice extolling the virtues of the Chinese police.
If you were wondering where Hong Kong action movies are heading, the answer is here: into Mainland China, where pop entertainment and government public service messages enter a marriage made for the box office.
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