Hong Kong/China, 2017, colour, 2.35:1, 120 mins.
Directors: Mai Zhaohui 麦兆辉 [Alan Mak], Pan Yaoming 潘耀明 [Anthony Pun].
A standout performance by Duan Yihong motors this China-set drugs drama, which grips on a pulpy level.
Yunlai municipality, southern China, the present day. Drugs trafficker Cheng Yi (Wang Yanhui) arranges with corrupt deputy police chief Wang Bo (Xiao Cong) to have one of his runners and 2 kg of heroin be caught for appearance’s sake. But Lin Kai (Huang Xuan), the runner chosen by Cheng Yi’s deputy Yang Bin (Zhao Bingrui), evades capture by the police. Afterwards he confronts Cheng Yi, who denies setting him up. The incident boosts the credibility of Lin Kai, whose real name is Liu Haojun and who is an undercover police agent in a government operation to discover the drugs’ manufacturing source. Lin Kai tells his handler, Li Jianguo (Zu Feng), that Cheng Yi or Yang Bin may have been testing him. Later, Cheng Yi takes along Lin Kai to a meeting with Luo Dongfang (Wang Yaoqing) to buy a large consignment of heroin. The handover is busted by the police and in the ensuing chaos, to preserve his cover, Lin Kai helps the wounded Luo Dongfang escape. The suspicious Luo Dongfang keeps Lin Kai at gunpoint and delivers him to the Golden Triangle HQ of his boss, druglord Eagle (Duan Yihong), with the help of Eagle’s daughter Qingshui (Lang Yueting). Eagle suspects Cheng Yi stole his heroin, so to avoid being shot Lin Kai offers to help him find Cheng Yi. Accompanied by Luo Dongsheng and Qingshui, Lin Kai finds Cheng Yi who says the raid was set up by Wang Bo with the two of them to split the proceeds. Luo Dongsheng confirms this by capturing Wang Bo; but when he tries to kill Lin Kai (who is no longer useful), Lin Kai turns the tables and holds him, Qingshui and Wang Bo hostage. Lin Kai proposes a deal by which he takes over from Cheng Yi the running of Eagle’s Greater China operation in exchange for the heroin held by Wang Bo. Eagle appears interested, but first he has Lin Kai turned into a morphine addict he can control. Lin Kai makes a success of running Eagle’s operations; but Eagle has a bigger, secret agenda that includes Lin Kai’s handler, Li Jianguo.
Top billing goes to China’s Huang Xuan 黄轩, as an undercover cop deep in a drug cartel, but it’s his older compatriot Duan Yihong 段奕宏 who steals all the acting thunder in Extraordinary Mission 非凡任务, a southern China/Golden Triangle action-drama put together by Hong Kongers but with an all-Mainland cast. Following on from their surveillance trio Overheard 窃听风云 (2009-14) and period spy drama The Silent War 听风者 (2012), Hong Kong film-making duo Mai Zhaohui 麦兆辉 [Alan Mak] and Zhuang Wenqiang 庄文强 [Felix Chong], best known for their Infernal Affairs 无间道 trilogy (2002-03), stay in the world of undercover duplicity but with Zhuang taking just a solo writing credit this time. He yields his usual place as a co-director to regular d.p. Pan Yaohui 潘耀辉 [Anthony Pun], who contributes some striking industrial and scenic landscapes but doesn’t seem to get in the way of what still looks and feels like a Mai/Zhuang movie.
Less claustrophobically plotted than most of their undercover dramas, it’s still gripping enough on a pulpy level and has the feel of another potential franchise by the Hong Kong duo. (The film even ends with Huang’s character being assigned another mission.) Dancer-turned-actor Huang, 32, has mostly jogged along in unmemorable supporting roles, with the exception of horror Nightmare 青魇 (2012); but here he makes a solid showing in his first leading action role, especially in the physically demanding, action-packed finale. On an acting level, however, he’s wiped off the screen – along with everyone else – by second-billed Duan (so good as the new police boss in The Dead End 烈日灼心, 2015). An actor who just seems to get better and better, Duan, 44, steals the whole show from his first appearance, 30 minutes in, as a glassy-eyed, hankie-clutching druglord.
Until then, the film has lacked a performance big enough to motor an action-drama of this size. During the half-hour set-up, the blank-faced Huang adequately conveys his mole’s perpetual fear of discovery and his skill at improvising; and he shares some strong scenes with character actor Wang Yanhui 王砚辉 (the murderer in The Dead End, the shifty law-and-order captain in Cock and Bull 追凶者也, 2016) as his suspicious boss. But with other roles, such as the police handler played by Zu Feng 祖峰 and the corrupt cop of Xiao Cong 肖聪, being more solid than gripping, Duan’s character re-boots the movie on another level. Women get even less of a look-in than usual for a Mai/Zhuang film and, in the sole distaff role, concert pianist-turned-actress Lang Yueting 郎月婷 (the revelation of Mountain Cry 喊•山, 2015) has little to do (or say) as the druglord’s daughter, apart from looking stern and unfathomable in guerrilla get-up.
On a plot level, Zhuang’s screenplay has a good sense of motion and plenty of left turns, despite being full of the usual implausibilities and shortage of character backgrounding. (Huang’s motivation is simply that his addict mum died of an overdose when he was still a child.) The sudden appearance of a revenge subplot in the third act strains credibility; but it at least turns the film into more than just a mole drama and supplies enough dramatic juice to fire up the remainder. And the action in the final half-hour is well worth the wait, with some agile stuff of Huang’s character on a motorbike and a shoot-out that has a grittier, more realistic feel than the usual Hong Kong setpieces, with stunt arranger Li Zhongzhi 李忠志 [Nicky Li] taking over from the usual Lin Di’an 林迪安 [Dion Lam]. Aside from a flashy (and undeniably effective) bullet sequence, visual effects are generally played down.
Locations in Thailand and Guangdong province double okay for the Golden Triangle and the fictional municipality of Yunlai (clearly meant to be somewhere in Yunnan province, southern China). Editing by regular Peng Zhengxi 彭正熙 [Curran Pang] is fine, but the score by fellow regular Chen Guangrong 陈光荣 [Comfort Chan] is lazy, especially in the long, all-action finale. Maybe because of its lack of big star names, and its unconventional, slow-burning structure, the film grossed only a so-so RMB153 million in China, putting any sequel in doubt.
Presented by Perfect World Pictures (CN), China Kingway Pictures (CN), Dream Sky Films (CN), Perfect Picture (HK). Produced by Pop Movies (HK).
Script: Zhuang Wenqiang [Felix Chong]. Photography: Pan Yaoming [Anthony Pun]. Editing: Peng Zhengxi [Curran Pang]. Music: Chen Guangrong [Comfort Chan], TaQ. Production design: Zhang Shihong [Silver Cheung]. Art direction: Zhuang Guorong, Feng Shufen. Costumes: Du Peixun. Sound: Nopawat Likitwong, Sarunyu Nurnsai, Kaikangwol Rungsakora. Action: Li Zhongzhi [Nicky Li]. Car stunts: Li Weiliang. Visual effects: Liang Weimin, Lin Hongfeng (Free-D Workshop).
Cast: Huang Xuan (Liu Haojun/Lin Kai), Duan Yihong (He Chaosheng/Lao Ying/Eagle), Zu Feng (Li Jianguo, police captain), Lang Yueting (Qingshui), Wang Yaoqing (Luo Dongfang), Xing Jiadong (Zhang Haitao), Wang Yanhui (Cheng Yi), Zhao Bingrui (Yang Bin, Cheng Yi’s deputy), Xiao Cong (Wang Bo, Yunlai deputy police chief), Ding Yongdai (Li Jianguo’s superior), Li Xiaochuan (Xiaobei), Dai Lele (Liu Haojun’s mother), Tao Hai (drug-trafficker elder), Guo Ziming (young Liu Haojun), Dujdao Vadhanapakorn (Eagle’s wife), Banthita Suntayarom (young Qingshui).
Release: Hong Kong, 6 Apr 2017; China, 31 Mar 2017.