Friday, October 06, 2023

Moscow Mission.

The IMDb shows four films directed by Herman Yau as 2023 films, including the forthcoming Customs Frontline, plus another, Death Notice that came out in Hong Kong in August but only lists "2022" as a release date in China. In terms of stuff reaching America, he isn't quite on a monthly schedule - The White Storm 3 was late July, Raid on the Lethal Zone was mid-September, and this is early October. That's an almost insane pace compared to folks making similar sorts of films in Hollywood, although I suspect this spate is as much a pandemic backlog as anything - the guy just kept working as much as he was able and now folks are finally releasing stuff in Chinese theaters.

These haven't exactly been great movies, but they've been good, and there's real pleasure in watching movies like this where everybody seems to know their job and gets it done. And for a Chinese cop movie, this is pretty mild as far as propaganda goes, although I was amused by the 1993 setting. Yeah, it was apparently based on a true story (though I imagine well-embellished), but there's something kind of amusing about how Chinese directors set a lot of these films in the past, so as not to imply that there's crime there now. Still, not a bad choice for some big-screen action this weekend.

Mo Si Ke xing dong (Moscow Mission)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 October 2023 in AMC Boston Common #9 (first-run, DCP)

Given that this is Herman Yau's third action movie to hit local theaters in roughly as many months, I suppose it's to be expected that they would feel extremely efficient, even when they're maybe a bit convoluted. This one, certainly, is one where you can feel the mechanism moving at a steady clip as it gets to the next bit of action, enough that the space between big action finale #1 and big action finale #2 gets noticed.

Heck, the film opens with a pretty slick-but-blunt 1993 train robbery, with apparently call girl Li "Zhenzhen" Suzhen (Janice Man Wing-San) scoping out who on the Z3 train between Beijing and Moscow has money so that a team led by "D" (Huang Xuan) and including the likes of her lover Miao Ziwan (Gu Jia Chang), Whisker (Zhang Ben Yu), and a couple more can target them quickly. It's happened often enough that China has set up a task force led by Captain Cui Zhenhai (Zhang Hanyu), including recent police academy grad Bun Jiandong (Bai Na Ri Su) and half-Siberian Kazimir Gang (Temur Manisashvili) to take the Z3 to Moscow and follow any leads. Perhaps sensing the heat, D plans to rob an underground casino, dangling the prospect of learning where his missing daughter is in front of Chinese expat "Vasily" (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) to get him to spearhead the effort.

Yau and writer Chen Daming certainly know how to get things off to a good start, with the initial Z3 robbery not only starting out ahead of the game by taking place on a train but also do a quality transition from "heist tradecraft" to "guy whose weapon of choice is a sledgehammer", Soon afterward, Yau does something neat at a rotary that surprised me, because I don't think I've seen it in another movie with cars tailing each other, where one almost wishes he'd saved it for a movie where the cat-and-mouse game of two sides trying to outmaneuver each other is the whole point, because the "who's following/who's being followed" reversal is so good.

Not that it's all nifty choreography, but there's plenty of good meat-and-potatoes action. The big fight is some pure 1980s excess firepower silliness which actually delivers in making use of Chekov's fighter jet, as was alluded to in Vasiliy's first scene (and a reminder that one could apparently acquire a functioning Su-27 for "forty grand" on the black market as the Soviet Bloc crumbled); it's an impressive job of ante-upping both for the movie and within the sequence, shot and cut in such a way that a lot is happening but the central focus is easy to track. An encore after that is kind of unnecessary, but I get the feeling someone learned about the location and couldn't resist using it. It's quite the nifty little piece once it gets started and builds to a good final payoff.

The cast is likably solid, with Zhang Dongyu a dogged team leader who comes off as smarter than most tough-cop characters, and leaves enough room for the rest of the team that it's a bit surprising they aren't used more. Andy Lau tones his natural charm down a bit to play a complicated rogue, with Janice Man fitting in well as the operation's designated distraction. Huang Xuan is maybe trying a little too hard as the lead villain - the script gives "D" too much of a signature eccentricity, and he occasionally comes across as silly rather than ruthless. He doesn't quite manage to flip the silly/sadistic switch in a way that makes his actions shocking when he needs to, quite something considering that the film turns at least twice on him being a rapist.

That's a line which a lot of more violent action movies seldom cross, and in retrospect, there's a cruelty in this film's treatment of women that should probably ding it more; by and large, men catch bullets while women get their throats cut, and note how much more attention Vasily's off-screen family gets even as Zhenzhen's is also what motivates her. That's not necessarily unusual for this sort of action movie, I suppose, and this is by and large a very fun entry in the genre, sleek and able to move past the boring parts for fairly impressive mayhem.

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