Mission, The (1999)

July 27, 2003 • Film, Reviews

Country: Hong Kong
Director: Johnnie To
Producer: Johnnie To
Writer: Nai-Hoi Yau

Cast: Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Francis Ng Chun-Yu, Jackie Lui Chung-yin, Roy Cheung, Suet Lam, Simon Yam, Tin Lam Wong, Eddy Ko-Hung

Running Time: 84 min.

Plot: After a failed assassination attempt on mob boss Lung, he hires five killers of diverse background as bodyguards and to seek out the enemy. The danger that comes with the job gradually brings the men closer, until an unexpected turn of events put their friendship and loyalty to the test.

A highly original work, possibly the best Hong Kong film since Tsui Hark’s The Blade (though the case can be made that Ringo Lam’s Victim, which came out at the same time as this movie, is equally exciting and inspired) Johnny To’s The Mission has a subtle craftsmanship that belies its seemingly genre-steeped plot.

When a gangster boss (Eddie Ko, expertly restrained in his reading of the character) is nearly killed by two gunmen, he puts together a round-the-clock guard comprised of some of the best people from all different facets of his “organization.” The five-man guard includes Curtis, an ice-cold gangland veteran-turned hairstylist, hot-headed turf-boss Roy and his strapping young assistant, Shin, quirky weapons expert James (who is constantly eating pistachios for the entire duration of the film), and an extremely polite pimp called Mike. The action of the film evolves as these five men wait for an attack to come. In the intervening hours these men get to know one another and ultimately become friends through a series of wonderful, low-key encounters and wordless scenes of waiting. Then Curtis learns a secret about one of the others that will turn the five friends against one another.

The characters are not silly like they sound. Rather, every character is superbly played by a great collection of Hong Kong’s best supporting actors. Anthony Wong plays Curtis, who is nicknamed “The Ice” not for nothing, Francis Ng tones down his usual scenery-chewing to make Roy into a very realistically flamboyant character, Jackie Liu plays his assistant, Shin, whose eager innocence first alienates him from and later endears him to the hardened gangsters. Roy Cheung, veteran villain of many a Ringo Lam movie, plays the well-mannered Mike with great subtlety; he never expresses his emotions outright, but his every glance betrays his thoughts. And Lam Suet, Milkyway’s eternal supporting player (playing anonymous thugs in The Longest Nite, A Hero Never Dies, and Expect the Unexpected; also the villainous cop in Where a Good Man Goes, and a variety of different parts under Milkyway’s new moniker, 1000 Years of Cinema), shows his real talent brilliantly as weapons-man James, whose excess of heart is made up for by his dearth of communication skills.

In an interview actor Anthony Wong revealed that The Mission never really had a script. Rather, the five leads sat down with Johnny To and worked together to create their characters. Johnny To would explain what would happen in a scene and the actors would improvise dialogue, actions, and reactions together. This unusual technique allowed each character a degree of realism not often present in film. In the majority of movies, there are small moments where actors don’t appear to be in character, appearing in a scene with nothing to do. In this movie, every character has a vital reaction to each event; their dialogue is exceptionally realistic, their pacing is absolutely perfect, and every actor appears perpetually in character! There isn’t one moment in this film where one of the five leads was not thoroughly believable. It’s as if they slipped so deep into their roles, it would be surprising if they actually came out of them.

Apparently, the actors felt this way, themselves. So devoted were they to their effort that they persevered through thick and thin to get the movie made. In fact, halfway through filming the z-budget production ran out of funds. But so dedicated were these brave actors that they continued working without salary. It’s an amazing testament to their belief in what they were doing, and also in the actual friendship between them that drove the friendship portrayed in the movie (especially considering that acting in Hong Kong is just like any other job; unlike in Hollywood, the actors are overworked and underpaid).

Also, Johnnie To’s direction is also superb, better certainly than any of his earlier Milkyway work. In the entire production, suspense is built around inaction, and tension is spoken with the actors expressions. This is easily Johnny To’s best film to date, one of the best (if not the very best) of the Milkyway films, and it is heartily recommended for anyone who wants to see subtlety and fine acting swing an action film.

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