Director: Fletcher Poon, Alan Mak
Writer: Felix Chong Man-Keung
Cast: Huang Xuan, Duan Yi-Hong, Zu Feng, Lang Yue-Ting, David Wang Yao-Qing, Xing Jia-Dong, Wang Yan-Hui, Ding Yongdai, Xiao Cong, Li Xiaochuan
Running Time: 122 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Extraordinary Mission suffered extraordinarily bad timing in terms of when it was released. Hitting screens within months of popular director Dante Lam’s big budget spectacular Operation Mekong, many (including myself) glanced over the awkwardly titled production, in part due to its marketing making it look like a poor man’s version of Lam’s latest. Both movies involve undercover agents working to take down a drug ring in the Golden Triangle, and for those that did check out the bombastic Operation Mekong, it left little appetite to return to the land of opium poppies quite so soon after the last visit.
It’s unfortunate, as the reality is that Extraordinary Mission delivers one of the most entertaining movies to come out of both China and Hong Kong in the last 10 years. Part thriller, part action movie, it becomes apparent when you take a look at the names behind the production as to where the quality comes from. Written by the Infernal Affairs trilogy scribes Felix Chong and Alan Mak, the latter of which also directs along with regular Benny Chan cinematographer Fletcher Poon, here making his directorial debut, the combination of the trio’s talents proves to be a winning one.
Huang Xuan, last seen in The Great Wall, plays a cop deep undercover as a drug trafficker in China. When a deal goes wrong, he ends up rescuing a member of the rival gang his crew were making a deal with, played by David Wang. Far from being grateful though, instead he’s thanked with a gun to the head, and taken to the gang’s headquarters deep in the jungles of Thailand. It’s there that he meets the facially scarred leader, played by Duan Yi-Hong (who’s character Eagle, ironically has more than a passing resemblance to Korean star Eagle Han Ying), and realizing it’s an opportunity to take down an even bigger fish, takes the risk of proposing a business partnership with Yi-Hong.
While the undercover plot has been done plenty of times before, and shades of Infernal Affairs sometimes resonate in the script, thanks to the gritty locales and solid performances here it still succeeds at feeling fresh. Xuan makes for an engaging lead, and has the same ability as Tony Leung Chiu-Wai to express a lot of emotion with just a facial expression. As he treads the fine line between bluffing his way into Yi-Hong’s trusted circle, and relaying the intel he’s gathering back to his superior (played by Zu Feng, last seen in League of the Gods), there’s hardly a scene that goes by in which the sense of danger from being exposed is absent. As a result there’s a constant feel of being on a knife edge throughout Extraordinary Mission, as it’s never made clear if Xuan’s identity is still safe, or if his cover has been blown and he’s simply being played with.
Despite the abundance of similar Chinese genre movies using Thailand as a setting in recent years, including SPL II: A Time for Consequences and The White Storm, the locales used in Extraordinary Mission set it apart in terms of the look and feel. This is most likely due to having an established cinematographer like Fletcher Poon in the director’s chair, as the lensing is top quality throughout. Whether it be capturing the grimy streets of the Chinese towns were the traffickers operate, the claustrophobic nature of the container yards the deals take place in, or the vastness of the drug den in Thailand, the camerawork does a fantastic job at conveying a sense of scale and depth.
At 2 hours, Extraordinary Mission covers a lot of ground, however it succeeds were Operation Mekong fails by making it about the characters rather than the circumstances. The trio of Xuang, Zu Feng, and Yi-Hong are all fleshed out with backstories, and the fact that the villain is given as much attention as the good guy provides a welcome depth, one which recent movies like Wolf Warrior 2 arguably missed the mark on. Yi-Hong, despite his status as the leader of a drug cartel, is given a relatable reason for having the motives that he does, while Xuang’s haunted by the memory of a mother that overdosed when he was a child.
For 90 minutes the plot keeps things sizzling along at a steady pace, and maintains a constant undercurrent of tension. The regular beatings, brief bursts of gunplay, and sudden outbreaks of violence ensure proceedings never get dull, with the style and tone at times almost feeling more like a Korean production than a Chinese one (I say that in the most complimentary was possible.) However Mak and Poon know when to turn up the heat, and events eventually culminate in an all-out finale that’s sustained for a lengthy 25 minutes.
While some may possibly find fault with the movies switch from a brooding undercover thriller to a Heat influenced urban warfare shoot ‘em up, the transition is handled well, and it feels like a natural payoff to what’s been building up. Just like in SPL II: A Time for Consequences, the way the lives of the main characters interconnect to each other is slightly contrived, however by the time such revelations are revealed, as a viewer you’re already too invested in them to dwell on it too much. When the execution is this good, such details are largely extraneous.
The action is handled by another regular Benny Chan collaborator in the form of Nicky Li. However unlike Chan, who tends to do little to reign in Li’s wire-work heavy action tendencies (or any other aspects of his movies), here Mak and Poon have kept the action directors wild side firmly in check. The finale sees a whole town under siege, and the principle behind the action seems to be one of minimum CGI and maximum realism. With CGI becoming so dominant in action movies of late, I’d almost convinced myself I can no longer tell the difference, that was until I saw the bombardment of practical effect muzzle flashes and vehicular destruction on display here.
If Wolf Warrior 2 was all about how bombastic the action scenes could be, then Extraordinary Mission is all about the realism. There’s plenty of neat little touches on display, such as when Xuang shoots the tyres of a stationery car, so that it becomes safer to take cover behind by being lower to the ground. Admittedly Li allows himself some extravagances once Xuang mounts a motorcycle, like jumping it from one building to another, and even dodging an RPG, but these elements entertain rather than detract. Poon’s cinematography compliments Li’s action well, here working in Thailand together for a 2nd time after The White Storm, with the camera capturing falls, head shots, and bullet trajectories in a way that perfectly understands the relationship between space and distance. In short, the finale is a joy to watch.
If any gripes could be picked with Extraordinary Mission, it’s that some of the relationships outside of the main characters could have been given a little more attention. The flashbacks to Xuang’s childhood with his mother are there in purely a perfunctory role, and a relationship is sometimes hinted at between Xuang and Yi-Hong’s daughter, played with a mostly silent intensity by Lang Yue-Ting, however ultimately amounts to nothing. These are minor gripes though in a movie that consistently entertains from start to finish. In an era when reviewing mainstream Chinese movies can often be a chore, Extraordinary Mission is the first time since Johnnie To’s Drug War when I’ve felt a sense of hope regarding things to come. The closing scene hints at a sequel, which I personally hope will be called Phenomenal Mission, but whatever title it ends up with, I’ll be first in line to check it out.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating 8.5/10