Dear The Mission,
The Hong Kong action film has become something of a genre unto itself for the rest of the world, for while it contains very much the same elements as an action film from any other region, it somehow manages to stand out. Whether this is due to the Western audience’s unfamiliarity with the personnel involved or the acting and filmmaking style, usually dependent on a heightened sense of emotion and physicality, the works of directors and producers such as Ringo Lam, Wong Jing, Tsui Hark, and most notably John Woo have essentially defined the Hong Kong action genre for many on this side of the world. With the dial for suspension of disbelief turned high, the gunplay usually involves an extraordinary complement of ammunition, a minimal amount of reloading, and an excessive capacity on the part of the characters to endure more than a few wounds that in reality would be fatal; most often referred to as “gun fu.” Concurrently, the storylines play out with themes revolving around duty, loyalty, and friendship, as the characters often skate the razor-thin edges between them for better or worse, with romantic subplots being peripheral almost to the point of nonexistence.
And so, you, The Mission present yet another entry into this genre, playing all of the hallmarks with great bravado and ease. Featuring several of Hong Kong’s top actors, including Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, Suet Lam, and Simon Yam, and directed by renowned director Johnnie To, your story is so simple as to be virtually secondary to the performances. A Triad boss hires five well known killers as his bodyguards after a failed attempt on his life, the five becoming a proficient team as lethal as they are loyal. Complete with the standard scenes of recruitment and initial animosity turning to admiration and solidarity, I can’t help but detect the influence of Akira Kurosawa as his Seven Samurai laid the groundwork for just this sort of action ensemble, right down to the youngest and most inexperienced member of the team starting off as brash and cocky and eventually engaging in an illicit affair with the boss’ wife. It is here that your scenario offers the rub as the most trusted member of the team is ordered to murder the young upstart for his transgression, resulting in a conflict of duty among the rest of the group.
Despite the austerity of your narrative (or perhaps because of it), the focus is primarily on the interplay between the characters as the action transpires. Communication is rarely through words, but rather through gestures and motions, from Roy Cheung’s stone-faced stillness as he fires sparingly but precisely to Francis Ng’s expression of mocking derision after a near critical error on the part of Anthony Wong. However, there are two very specific sequences that demonstrate this dexterity best: 1) The shootout in the mall, the bodyguards and the assassins separated by columns that conceal them from each other, the only hints of their presence being relayed through mirror reflections, resulting in a remarkably tense and well choreographed scene of beautiful violence. 2) A much subtler and lightly comedic scene as the team stands at adjacent positions in an office hallway, playing football (soccer to us Americans) with a piece of wastepaper, never once saying a word or even cracking a smile. The synchronicity among these five men is showcased with such intensity and individuality as each actor given his moment to shine and impress so that no one star steals the show, although Wong and Ng as the two primary leads do come close to doing so in their own rights. From Wong’s stern and mostly unwavering expression of cold, calculating efficiency throughout to Ng’s sullen hot-headedness and outbursts of violence, the two expertly portray the symbolic conflict of duty vs. friendship that plays through to the film’s sudden and subtly offbeat climax.
If anything ill can be said about you, it would be that your soundtrack is severely lacking. Whether this is due to your modest budget or simply to allow the characters more presence and employ the same less is more dynamic as the action and story, who can say? Still, with only two or three major music cues recurring throughout your 81 minute runtime, all of which almost remarkable for their cheesiness evocative of the synthesizer scores of the ‘80s, one wonders if you might have benefitted from simply not having a musical accompaniment at all.
As stated, your action sequences are top-notch, beautifully stylized without overindulging in outlandish spectacle as Western audiences might expect from the genre thanks to the works of Lam or Woo. Instead, you present a very sober depiction of violence, playing at a moderate tempo that favors tension over bombast and is more reminiscent of Sergio Leone’s long passages of anxious anticipation in the moments leading up to violence rather than to draw the violence out. As well, the Kurosawa influence is recalled once again as your occasional instances of slow motion focus on the aftermath of violence as opposed to the bullet ballets audiences saw in The Killer or A Better Tomorrow. And what good is an action movie without humor? You offer up just a few deadpan chuckles to break the anxiety without undermining the mildly serious tone, from Simon Yam’s almost lax and suitably off-kilter portrayal of the Triad boss’ right hand man to the running joke of the explosive cigarette. Your director, Johnnie To deserves much praise for his economy of style and substance, presenting what is an almost by-the-numbers story with strong characterizations and action that is tastefully executed as it is exciting to watch unfold. Certainly, he is no stranger to action having given us such films as The Heroic Trio, Executioners, and A Hero Never Dies, but you, The Mission offer a finely crafted piece of work that revels in its modesty and excels in its thrills.