Shakespearean in its scope and operatic in its execution, THE MISSION (‘99) remains one of the most taut, compelling and superbly composed films made in Hong Kong during the 1990s. This sinewy thriller helped cement Johnnie To’s reputation as one of today’s most accomplished action directors and you can currently catch it streaming on FilmStruck as part of a double feature with To’s VENGEANCE (2009). I highly recommend making time for both of these exceptional crime pictures, but THE MISSION is a particularly good entry point into To’s neon-lit world inhabited by ruthless mob bosses, crooked cops, loose women and cold-blooded killers.
THE MISSION begins with a bang. Inside the cleverly named Super Bowl restaurant, which we will return to frequently throughout the course of the film, assassins attempt to take the life of a powerful mob boss named Lung (Eddy Ko). Worried that it might have been an inside job, Lung grows suspicious of his close associates and asks his brother (Simon Yam) to hire a group of outsiders to act as his bodyguards. This makeshift team of highly-skilled guardians consists of five men. An even-tempered hairdresser (Anthony Wong), a lowkey gun dealer (Lam Suet), an impulsive pimp (Roy Cheung), a hotheaded nightclub owner (Francis Wong) and his young protégé (Jackie Lui). They bond over shared jokes and games punctuated by moments of fierce gunplay as they try to protect Lung until they can catch his would-be killers. As their deadly mission comes to a close the men’s camaraderie is tested when it’s discovered that one of them may have violated an important rule in their unwritten contract.
To its credit, there is very little dialogue in the film and no wasted moments during the 87-minute long running time. THE MISSION forgoes endless exposition in favor of a lean and mean narrative, so we get to know the characters and their motives through their actions. This would be a difficult accomplishment if the actors weren’t so damn good and the characters weren’t so interesting and smartly drawn. But the cast is exceptional, particularly Anthony Wong and Francis Wong, who lead their costars through some especially tense and difficult scenes.
Anthony Wong’s character is inward looking and laidback while his eyes project a life lived under the shadow of the gun he carries. In sharp contrast, Francis Wong is as tightly wound as a spring with a temperature that constantly runs hot and threatens to boil over at any moment. The two men clash constantly, sometimes erupting in violence, but they always find a way to bridge their differences. Their uneasy friendship is at the heart of THE MISSION and it will come into sharp focus when the end credits finally roll.
Johnnie To and his team of writers and cinematographers at Milkyway Image (Hong Kong) Ltd. take their cues from French director Jean-Pierre Melville who was a master of highly stylized minimalistic crime films. In turn, the best moments in THE MISSION are the brilliantly choreographed gunfights that unfold in a barrage of bullets framed by neon lights and accentuated by slick, mirrored surfaces. The director frequently poses his actors as if they are figures in a high-end fashion magazine spread and their guns look like chic accessories. Despite the beauty of these cinema tableaus, we never question the character’s skills or purpose. The men who participate in these brutal ballets are hard-nosed killers that rarely display any remorse for their actions.
If the film has a flaw it can be found in the simplistic and underwritten roles of the female characters. To has admitted that he has trouble writing substantial roles for women and prefers working with men despite the fact that he did direct one of my favorite female action films (THE HEROIC TRIO [‘93]). In turn, his action-packed crime dramas frequently focus on the ins and outs of male relationships in a gangland setting. Despite the director’s self-confessed limitations, THE MISSION is a rich and rewarding film that benefits from multiple viewings. But be forewarned! The catchy synthesizer theme is not easy to forget. Composer Ching Chi-wing created an infectious earworm for the film that divides audiences into two camps. Some (like myself) love it but others find the throwback 1980s style soundtrack distracting.
Milkyway Image made THE MISSION for a mere $300,000 and To shot it with cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung in just 18 days. It would be wise for aspiring filmmakers to analyze the construction of this entertaining, extremely polished and briskly paced low-budget production. It is a casebook study in economical filmmaking that earned multiple awards including the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Director in 1999. Twenty years after its release, it remains a cult favorite among Hong Kong movie fans and continues to be admired by appreciative filmmakers including Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino.
by Kimberly Lindbergs
Originally written for FilmStruck.com 2.22.2018