NYAFF 2017: EXTRAORDINARY MISSION Channels Old School Hong-Kong Spirit

An Incredible Throwback To Heroic Bloodshed

The New York Asian Film Festival ran from June 30 to July 16. For more information about what you missed, click here.

It’s a curious thing to have to make the claim that a movie that has a highly destructive car chase within the first five minutes starts off slow, but such is the way of Extraordinary Mission. It may be a Mainland entry, but in all but point of origin it’s a 21st century throwback to the Heroic Bloodshed genre made famous by a generation of iconic Hong Kong filmmakers. And while it’s got some pretty glaring flaws, it absolutely redeems itself by staging one of the most hardcore run and gun finales I’ve seen in far too long.

But to get to the glory of those last twenty minutes, the viewer has to wade through a bloated mess of alliances, betrayals, and byzantine criminal actions that seem to be aiming for epic but wind up landing on ‘convoluted and kinda dull’.

Lin Kai (Huang Xian) is a drug courier for a cartel network whose influence seems to stretch far and wide. A run-in with the cops forces him into an unpleasant situation and sets off a chain of recriminations, betrayals and makeshift alliances that completely restructure the criminal underworld.

The sheer influx of characters going back and forth in the opening ten minutes of the film is staggering. It’s impossible to tell who means what to who, and what the hierarchy is. (Which becomes all the more frustrating when you eventually realize that almost none of this matters, anyway… but we’ll get to that point a little later…)

Kai finds himself in charge of the territories of Yang Bin (Wang Yihong, in a brief but energetic performance), with the promotion bringing in all sorts of complications to what initially seemed like a fairly straightforward undercover gig. Motivated by the heroin related death of his mother (a plot point that ultimately doesn’t do much to flesh him out as a character), Kai throws himself into his new role with abandon. And this is all to the good, as his handler Li Jiangua (Zu Feng, channeling Danny Lee), for reasons somewhat more complicated than mere justice, is determined to break this empire once and for all.

This middle section of the film evokes nothing less than the anthropological, ‘How To Succeed In The Drug Trade’ docudrama style of Mann’s Miami Vice: there is great attention paid to the various inventive methods of both smuggling and disposing of mass quantities of illicit product.

In fact, the entire first half could be considered a cross between Vice and The Departed, the last part being rather unsurprising when you realize that director Alan Mak actually wrote and directed the entire Infernal Affairs trilogy, the first of which was the basis for The Departed.

It’s no real insult to say that Mak, along with co-director Anthony Pun (who doubles as cinematographer), is no Scorsese or Mann. So however stylishly the film orchestrates its unending series of double crosses and furtive meetings, it never manages to invest its characters with the depth of its seeming inspirations.

And it certainly doesn’t evoke the old school ballistic charm of the Hong Kong classics it’s supposedly intended to evoke.

That is, until the arrival of Eagle, the mastermind behind the cartel empire.

As assayed by Duan Yihong, Eagle has the malevolent charm necessary to galvanize the film. His actions when he and Kai finally meet up roughly halfway through the film derail the narrative in a delightfully off kilter way, and from there on out, the film keeps upping the ante, growing increasingly insane in exactly the way you used to get whenever you’d pop a Tai Seng bootleg into your VCR and press play: you couldn’t be sure what was about to happen, but the odds are it was going to be amazing.

The charm of those old school Hong Kong flicks (and make no mistake; these were not films, they were flicks) came from more than just their adrenaline charged action sequences and their casual disregard for the lives of stuntmen, but in the unpredictable nature of their ‘What the Hell, We’ll Figure It Out On Set’ style of storytelling. Where the action genre in America had codified into tropes and cliches, the Hong Kong action genre was throwing anything and everything against the wall to see what stuck, right before they just said ‘Fuck it’, and lit a stick of dynamite and stuck it in one of the cracks to blow that wall to rubble.

Far from the distanced, ironic cool that marked so much of American action cinema at that time, the Heroic Bloodshed films were unapologetically melodramatic, over-the-top in their plotting, their emotions, and their “Anything For a Thrill” sense of abandon. At their best, they really felt like anything could happen.

That is the true spirit that the twists and turns in the second half of Extraordinary Mission replicates with uncanny brilliance.

Because eventually, all the side characters we’ve been trying to keep up with and figure out the allegiance of… they all fall away, and what we’re left with is a gloriously melodramatic tale of betrayal and revenge, one that elevates Li Jiangua from another stoic chief behind a desk and into the hero and the villain of his own story. And transforms Eagle from sneering sadist to righteous angel of vengeance, playing a long game that’s so jaw dropping in it’s meticulous insanity that it passes right by ‘implausible’ to land squarely on the side of ‘inspired’.

And it culminates in a running battle in the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle territories, a balls out blitzkrieg that consumes an entire city, sending bullets and bazooka shells spiraling out in all possible directions and climaxes with an operatic fury rarely undertaken in this day and age.

For those who have yearned for the sort of classically ruthless turbocharged action that stunt unions tend to have to protest for their own safety, mixed with the hysterical emotional climaxes that made them resonate as more than just genre fluff (and who can wait out that damned first hour), Extraordinary Mission is a must watch.

Plus, when’s the last time you watched a movie so badass that it actually ENDS with a training montage?

Seriously, guys: Highly recommended…

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