(1999) director Johnnie To
Johnnie To’s lean, fast-paced gangster film The Mission is definitely a fine example of the genre. When a mob boss narrowly escapes an attempted execution, he hires an idiosyncratic but highly professional crew of bodyguards to make sure he doesn’t get killed and to track his assailants. Great character performances abound in this taut Hong Kong action flick.
There was a time when I watched a lot of Hong Kong films, but now they’re less common in my viewing, vying for roster space with lots of other films. Oddly enough, I think I’ve had The Mission in my queue for almost as many years as I’ve had a queue. Back in 2002, I caught To’s Fulltime Killer (2001) at the San Francisco International Film Festival, and then some time after that, I read an article about a number of films that To had either produced or directed that were supposed to be great and queued a number of them. At the time, though, the only one that I managed to watch was Patrick Yau’s The Odd One Dies (1997), which I did like a lot.
I’d always head that The Mission was pretty top notch, and it is. With a running time below 90 minutes, the film gets going before the title sequence has even finished and before you even have a total grasp on the situation. In that sense, maybe it’s a little too quick and concise. It took me a while to feel confident that I knew what was going on. But the film is shot with a simple elegance and the characters are all unique and well-done, that their personalities are well-sketched even in the few brief brushstrokes.
The film also features some cool, classic Hong Kong gangster set ups, guns pointed at one another in a complicated Mexican standoff. But perhaps the film’s best sequence has the mafia boss protected by his five bodyguards in a mall, in which they all stand stock-still, waiting for the attackers to approach. The camera works its way around the armed men, describing angles and vantage points, hidden killers lying in wait, and just plays out as a just really cool shoot-out.
The film is what it is, a genre film, with a relatively simple storyline, but it moves quickly and deftly. It’s kind of shocking that this film wasn’t re-made in America yet, because you can totally imagine such a thing done (right or wrong). My only real complaint was that the DVD was a poor one. The picture wasn’t great, but worst of all, through several “chapters”, a ghost image of one of the introductory titles appeared in the middle of the image. I assume this wasn’t an intentional “watermark” on the film but just some degraded aspect of the DVD. This would be a cool movie to see on the big screen.