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Hipster Holy Grail: Mission of Justice (1992)

The Hipster Holy Grail is a weekly experiment where I try to find and review a movie that's at least 10 years old and has less than 5,000 ratings on IMDb. I always hope to discover something amazing. Sometimes I don't.  This week, I watched....

The Short Bit for People Who Don't Like to Read Reviews

Despite a lackluster start, Mission of Justice is an entertaining fourth-tier action movie from yesteryear.  It's definitely one of the better options in its league and worth your time to seek out if you've already exhausted the bigger titles.

My Rating: 4 / 5 (Not Actually Bad Movie)

The Plot Summary

The movie opens with some of the misadventures of Kurt Harris (Jeff Wincott), a cop with lethal martial arts skills, and his partner, Lynn Steele (Karen Sheperd).  Harris is a cranky, take-no-crap cop and Steele is basically more of the same, but with slightly more respect for rules.

They bust a couple of generic perps in a few introductory scenes, including a foiled convenience store robbery.  The odd thing is, there isn't really a hook here.  Normally a movie opens and you think, "Huh, looks like we've got some stakes in play," but instead, the first seven minutes are kinda like the "Previously On" recap sequence of a TV show you didn't know you were watching.

The upshot of all this is that Harris has recently busted a dude for domestic abuse and promised the crook's long-suffering wife that she'd have nothing to fear from now on.  However, Harris's boss, Sergeant Duncan (Christopher Kriesa), freed the abuser because he's one of the police department's most reliable informants.  The abuser immediately goes home and beats his wife to death, so Harris re-arrests him and then goes to punch Duncan in the head.  Naturally, he's suspended from duty.

Cut to Cedric Williams (Tony Burton), a boxing trainer and long-time friend of Harris's.  Cedric is a local celebrity as he won a heavyweight boxing championship some years back and isn't shy about showing off his belt.  Presently he's giving some lessons to various colorful folks, including Jimmy Parker (Billy Williams), who isn't that important now but who will be later.

Cedric tries to close up shop for the night.  Unfortunately, he's got unwelcome guests: Dr. Larkin (Brigitte Nielsen) and her right-hand man / bodyguard / brother, maybe?, Titus (Matthias Hues).  Larkin is introduced without any context, so when she demands money from Cedric, you naturally assume she's some kind of gangster running a protection racket.  That's only partly right.

Anyway, Cedric refuses, so Titus beats him to death and steals the belt, and then he and Larkin leave.  A few moments later, Jimmy creeps out of the shadows - apparently he witnessed the whole thing and now he's scared shitless.  He scampers off into the night until it's time to be a plot device again later.

Next day.  Harris learns about Cedric's murder and tries to get some info about it from the crime scene, but it's a little tough to do any detective work at present since he's been suspended.  So he decides to take justice into his own hands and do some freelance policing.  His mission?  Investigate the Mission of Justice and figure out if they had anything to do with Cedric's death.

Okay, so, let me back up now and run that by you again, but with an explanation.  The movie kinda just throws the whole Mission concept out there without any context, as if you knew from the get-go what the back story was.  Apparently, Dr. Larkin is a famed and beloved psychologist and motivational speaker who has founded a Scientology-like group to aid the community.  Her followers band together at the Mission of Justice, a militarized compound / corporate office that also serves as the headquarters for her political career as an aspiring mayoral candidate.  Among Larkin's many other contributions to the community are her "peacemakers," a pseudo-militia of highly-skilled martial artists / death squad who patrol the streets of Los Angeles and inflict their own brand of justice on criminals.  Because the peacekeepers are perceived as making a difference in contrast to the actual police department, Larkin's got a good shot at winning the upcoming election.

Now, why would the movie assume that you'd know any of that?  I have no idea.  I guess death squads were pretty common in major American cities in the late '80s / early '90s.  (It was still technically the Reagan era.)

The idea of a privately-funded group of goons who call themselves "peacemakers" doesn't sit well with Harris, so he decides to go undercover as a volunteer for the Mission in hopes that he can ascend their ranks and get the real scoop behind what they're up to.  He quits the police and visits a Mission recruiter, where he beats the shit out of three goons who try to rough him up and consequently impresses the folks in charge.

There's a bit of reluctance at first to let Harris into the club, though.  Stockwell (Luca Bercovici), Larkin's second-in-command and chief political advisor, finds out he's a cop and doesn't want to risk any extra scrutiny.  But Larkin takes a different approach - she thinks that if they can get a cop into their peacemaker program, they'll be able to spin it for political gain.  (The headline: "Cop Quits LAPD, Joins Mission.")

So, Harris is in.  Sort of.  He has to go through some training first, during which he shows up his mentor and gives a lot of 'tude to all his fellow peacemakers.  He's also introduced to what I'm going to call the "auditing room" - a crappy little cell where people are secretly videotaped while undergoing a form of interrogation that's masked as therapy.  The victims patients are subjected to electric shocks to force their compliance while they are asked a series of invasive questions, and somehow this makes them... healthier?  I don't know.  They didn't sell it very well.

All of this goes by pretty quickly, though, and we end up at the first really great scene of the movie: the gauntlet.

Y'see, the Mission doesn't just let anyone become a peacemaker after a measly week of training.  No, there's much more ceremony and gang-like hazing than that.  You have to pass the training first, and then join all of the current peacemakers in a creepy Death Hall that looks like it came out of a Mortal Kombat game, where twenty of them stand on either side of a walkway and get ready to beat the shit out of you.  If you want to be a peacemaker, you have to get to the other side alive.


How does the Mission have any peacemakers?  With that kind of requirement, you're culling your candidates down to nothing.  And if somebody does pass the gauntlet, wouldn't that necessarily mean they've just beaten up twenty of your best guys?  Isn't that going to be a noticeable shortage next time you need a peacemaker patrol?

You know what, this is a case where it's better not to ask questions.  Instead, you just get to watch the gauntlet in action, and it's pretty awesome.  Two other candidates go first and get in a few good fights before succumbing, and then some of the Mission folk hand a couple of fighting sticks (there's probably an actual term for them, but since I'm a dummy, they're "fighting sticks") to Harris and warn him that once he starts, he cannot leave.  Harris looks at the room and throws the sticks into the center of the gauntlet with disgust, then turns away...

...only to dive headfirst into the middle of everything a moment later and grab the sticks, then beat everybody's ass one-by-one.  It's great.

They don't skimp on the body count here, which I really appreciate.  You could probably have gotten away with showing him beat up like two or three guys, and then have Larkin nod approvingly.  But Mission of Justice knows what you're here for, so they don't abridge a damn thing.  Harris doesn't stop until he's punched everyone in the room.

So, yeah, he graduated.  Time to go on patrol.

Harris is partnered with another peacemaker for his first day, and as their very first act, they're off to find Jimmy Parker.  Remember that guy?  Witness to a plot-crucial murder early on?  Apparently he's also a peacemaker, but he hasn't been showing up to work lately - not since Cedric's murder - and they want to bring him back into the fold.  (Which, by the way, means that Jimmy apparently also passed the gauntlet at some point.)

After they get Jimmy, the trio picks up a police transmission about an illegal deal of some sort and they go to investigate.  Coincidentally, Steele and Duncan (remember them, too?) are also en route to the scene, and they get there first.  They're about to make an arrest when a couple more generic bad guys show up and point guns at their heads, but fortunately Harris and the peacemakers jump in at just the right moment and save the police from getting killed.

This ends up being another huge PR win for Larkin, so she's thrilled to let Harris spend the night in a barracks-styled room in the Mission.  Good news for Harris - he's starting to forget that he had a motive at one point.  After some stuff involving a security camera, Harris sneaks into a surveillance room and steals a video tape labeled with Cedric's name.

The next day, Harris shares the tape with Steele, and they watch together to learn that Cedric admitted to having thrown one of his matches years ago.  Evidently, the Mission has since been using the tape to blackmail Cedric in order to get funds for Larkin's campaign.  Steele is temporarily excited to have evidence that might help them break Cedric's murder case, but then Harris burns the tape in order to protect Cedric's secrets.  It's a pretty funny moment, especially when both of them shrug immediately afterward and say, "Actually, it's not very good evidence, anyway."

So.  Back to the sting operation.

There's another pretty good sequence here where Harris beats up a bunch of dudes at an auto repair shop, but in practical terms it doesn't really do anything in the movie.  So, skipping ahead a bit, we get to a part where some of the Mission folk find out that Cedric's tape was stolen and they deduce that Harris took it.  Realizing that they need to take him out of the picture, but that they can't just kill him (he's too much of a PR asset), they do the next best thing: they murder Sergeant Duncan and frame Harris for the crime.

Harris goes on the run and tries to pull together whatever allies he can.  First, he tries to get Jimmy to help him out - he knows Jimmy is a witness and can testify against Larkin.  Jimmy was previously reluctant, but after the Mission kills his grandmother in order to collect on funds she left to them in her will (that's a whole other subplot I skipped over), Jimmy no longer has reservations.  He and Harris are about to go report in to the police when Titus shows up and kidnaps Jimmy.

Harris finds Steele and convinces her to help him bust Larkin for good.  They sneak into the Mission for a climactic showdown, and I have to say, it's easily the best part of the movie.  A lot of movies like this lose their steam right around now and just end up having ten boring minutes of people wandering around a warehouse, but Mission of Justice actually ramps up from here.  You end up with a series of fight scenes, each of which has its own flavor and each of which is pretty bad-ass.

Harris and Titus have a brutal, drag-out fight that launches both of them through several rooms and stairwells, and while that's going on, Steele has a couple of good fights of her own.  They're not crappy little token fights, either - movies with archetypal tough lady characters usually waste them on some piddling little nothing match that's over in two seconds, but Mission of Justice knows better.  Steele has a fist-in-face, death-match styled brawl with the lead interrogator/therapist and it's awesome.

There's also a really funny moment in her fight sequence where she knocks the auditor down, then turns away, thinking everything's been resolved.  The auditor gets up and kicks Steele in the back.  So they fight again and Steele knocks the auditor down a second time, then starts to leave again... but then thinks twice and handcuffs the auditor's arm and leg together around a chair.  It's a nice touch.

So, the whole point of all this fighting is that Jimmy was being audited / tortured, so Steele has come to rescue him.  The original plan was to get Jimmy to safety so she could get his testimony against Larkin, but then Harris punches Titus through a plate glass window and into the center of a crowded auditorium where Larkin is giving a victory speech to the media - apparently she just won the election (maybe?).  This sudden dramatic flair has put a damper on any of their subtler plans, so Steele improvises: she takes security footage of Jimmy's torture, in which he accuses Larkin directly of murder and in which Larkin herself admits it, and plays it over the Mission's internal video system for all to see.

Larkin realizes she's screwed, so she draws a couple of knives and tries to stab Harris. He gives her a good punch and disarms her easily, then arrests her.

...and somehow, this still counts?  I hate to be the party-pooper here, but Harris was off the force at this point, right?  So is Larkin even actually arrested?  Shortly afterward, more police officers show up and take Larkin away and apparently don't even care about bringing Harris in for questioning about Duncan's murder or the Mission or the unsanctioned sting operation or anything.  I guess he was actually still on the force the whole time.

Sure.  Works for me.

What I Liked / Didn't Like

Mission of Justice has a lot of good stuff in it, but what ties it all together is that it saves its best stuff for the end.  It's a movie that gets better as it goes on, which is so much more satisfying than those bait-and-switch movies where there's something great - or at least funny - early on, and then you wind up stuck in a slog.

The downside, of course, is that the opening is kinda shitty.  If I'm being honest, I didn't think I'd keep watching after the first fifteen minutes.  The introduction to the characters is very disjointed and takes way too much time.  You've got an entire C-plot in the snitch/abusive husband character with its own three-act structure, and the only reason any of it happens is to get Harris off the force.  Why bother?

It's almost like the producers of the movie weren't convinced that the audience would go along with the movie's A-plot, so they glossed over it entirely in order to give you a more grounded, realistic plot.  But think about that for a minute.  This is a movie about a violent Scientology-like cult that's trying to take over Los Angeles at the mayoral level.  That premise sells itself.  If you tell me I have the choice between two action movies, one of which is about a cop struggling with the moral ramifications of his job and the other of which is about a martial artist who punches urban cultists to death, I'm going with Option B every single time.  Who wouldn't?

It's kind of like if somebody made a science-fiction rock opera about flesh-eating aliens who use thrash metal to enslave their victims, and then they couched that in a slice-of-life dramedy about an amateur astronomer.  Look, your astronomy might be neat and all, but that's not why I'm here.  I want to get to the part where there's literal face-shredding music.

Harris doesn't get involved with the titular Mission of Justice until around minute 20.  As soon as he does, though, the movie immediately gets into its groove. By minute 30 you get that amazing gauntlet scene and it never lets up from there.

Good thing, too.  One of MoJ's successes for me personally is that it introduced me to Jeff Wincott, whose work I've entirely missed or overlooked until now.  He doesn't have the affability or charm of other third-tier (alright, let's be honest, fourth-tier) action stars, but he makes up for it with a great scowl and quick enough martial arts skills to keep the movie's energy going.

I hate to keep complaining about this, but contrast this movie once again to Hawk's Vengeance.  Hawk was a low-budget action movie that featured an honest-to-God kickboxing master, yet none of its action scenes ever feel up to snuff.  Any time Gary Daniels fights somebody in that movie, he looks like he's moving in slow motion.  Jeff Wincott in Mission of Justice, on the other hand?  He's flying all over the place.  It could be that since I keep watching stuff like Hawk's Vengeance, I've lowered my standards for "good action," but I'd like to believe that Mission of Justice is actually really well-made.

And here I want to make an important distinction in my recommendation.  I watch a lot of different types of movies for the Hipster Holy Grail, and I always fear that people who wind up at my site may not really understand the whole shtick of what I do.  I'm not explicitly seeking out bad movies - just overlooked ones.  So when I watch something like this and I give it a high score, I like to make sure I tag one of my bullshit rating system labels so you get the right idea of what that score actually means.

Mission of Justice is not a "bad" movie.  When I give it four out of five, I don't mean that this is a good movie to sit down and watch ironically with your friends.  I mean that it's actually an entertaining action movie that's legitimately fun to watch.  I still think it would be a good choice to watch with a group - just not to make fun of.  Keep that in mind or you may be disappointed.

How Much Hipster Cred Is It Worth?

Hmm.  I'm really torn on this one.  See, there's a lot that's telling me I should score this high.  Successful television actor turned direct-to-video star?  Check.  Lesser-known female action star brought in as a last-minute replacement to an already modestly-obscure cult icon?  Check.  Semi-sequel to a VHS series with its own cult following?  Check.  It's like if you took all the things that normally get hipster cred, and then you made them even more hipster.

And yet, somehow this movie has over 500 ratings on IMDb.  That might seem obscure compared to, say, a lesser-known Stallone movie, but when you start trawling IMDb looking for movies that are truly unknown and unremembered, 500 is still pretty high.  I gave myself a cut-off of 5,000 when I first started doing the Grail, and after only a few months (actually, right after the time I forced Sorcerer into my HHG post for the week because I didn't have time to watch a more suitably hipstery movie), I realized that 5,000 is waaaaaay too much latitude.

If you're going for hipster cred - the really high, smug, in-your-face, eyebrow-raising, self-satisfied, shit-eating, "I knew it and you didn't" kind of hipster cred - then you really need those IMDb ratings to be down to double digits. So I'm thinking there's got to be a relatively low cap on this.  Once you break 500 ratings, you pretty much can't get more than 40 or so cred.

...but wait a minute.  Are you telling me Mission of Justice doesn't have a Wikipedia page at the moment?

Works for me.  I'll give it 50 hipster cred out of a possible 100.

Where You Can Watch

It appears to be a VHS-only release for North America right now, so good luck at your garage sales if you want a legit copy.  However, I found it on Youtube, and if you can play Region 2 DVDs easily, you can buy it from Amazon UK.