Review: The Mission (1999)


Hailed as the film that introduced Johnnie To to the film world beyond Hong Kong, The Mission is a testament to the power of minimalist filmmaking. It’s also a great jazz-riff of a film: loose, with the sort of staccato bursts of energy and formal exactitude that you’d expect of an exceptional jazz piece. Johnnie To has made films that have been subsequently more complex and more invigorating, but no film has so perfectly encapsulated his appeal as The Mission. If you’re unfamiliar with this prolific Hong Kong auteur, there’s no better place to start.

The film’s minimal plot involves five criminals (Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Jackie Liu, Roy Cheung, and Lam Suet) who are hired to protect a triad gang boss after a failed assassination attempt on his life. While wary of each other at first, the characters slowly bond and become dedicated brothers in arms, which causes problems when one of the men is ordered by the boss’s brother (Simon Yam) to kill another.

Like many of To’s films, The Mission is an exploration of the brotherhood of criminals. These bonds are forged through necessity (if they do not bond, they will be weak and die at the hands of enemies) and mutual admiration (they are all professionals and respect each other for their skills). This places the film in a long lineage of films about bonding criminals and the challenges they face, whether capers like Jules Dassin’s Rififi, Michael Mann’s Heat, or the neo-noir masterworks of Jean-Pierre Melville. However, unlike in Le Cercle Rouge, Heat, or Rififi, The Mission does not show the inevitable breakdown of those bonds. However, it does address the dangers of loyalty in a profession powered by betrayal and murder and even appears to show that breakdown as an appeasement of the Chinese concept of “saving face.”

For To, there is such a thing as honour among thieves, and the unspoken affection and passion these men have for each other lends a humanity to the film that the cold style and quiet dramatics don’t suggest. Often in To’s films, these bonds are formed around the dinner table, highlighting the central role of food in Hong Kong culture. In other scenes, it’s the characters’ mutual playfulness that draws them together; a simple action like kicking a paper ball around the floor of the boss’s office speaks volumes about the men’s enjoyment of each other’s company.

It’s this focus on the connection between the criminals at the film’s centre that elevates The Mission beyond mere formal exercise. However, even if The Mission were only a stark action film and nothing more, it’d still be exceptional. Like in most To films, there are not many action scenes in The Mission, but those present have such a seismic impact that they reverberate long past their completion. For instance, the central mall shootout is so phenomenal, it justifies the entire film.

The scene takes place about midway through The Mission. As the five men move the mob boss through a quiet mall, they grow wary of the stillness of the building. They fear something is coming, and the camera’s focus on the long, abandoned stretches of the mall and quiet of the soundtrack confirms their suspicions. As they ride down an escalator, the mob boss in tow, they spot a security guard heading up an escalator on the opposite end of the building. He looks their way. They return his gaze. And as if accepting a challenge, the man tosses his hat into the air and fires upon the bodyguards, sparking a shootout that is more defined by its stretches of silence than any booming physical actions. It’s important to draw a distinction here between To’s action and the action of his Hong Kong contemporaries like John Woo. Unlike Woo, To restricts movement and action; his characters circle the wagons, so to speak, and only shoot when they know the bullet will hit.

To is obsessed with parallel movements and objects set in opposition to each other. His visual style often exploits the tension that this movement creates in the frame, whether that’s the neighbouring skyscraper offices that spark the romance between Louis Koo and Gao Yuanyuan in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart or the two escalators here, which provide visual momentum in a scene where characters stay largely stationary and quiet. There are few action scenes as quiet and still as this one, but it ranks among the most impactful action scenes in modern cinema.

While the formal approach of the mall scene and all the film’s action scenes might seem exacting to the level of Stanley Kubrick, the reality is much less romantic. To is shockingly economical in all of his filmmaking decisions. He chose to shoot in the mall because the location was free to shoot in and the scene is drawn out so as to reduce the amount of additional scenes that To needed to shoot to pad out the runtime. However, to say that To’s style is merely a result of his frugality is missing the point.

Johnnie To might shoot without proper scripts, shot lists, or storyboards, but he does not shoot without purpose. In fact, his desire to shoot cheaply might belie a minimalist style, but the precision of his filmmaking is entirely a result of his skill. After honing his skills with dozens of New Year’s comedies and TV movies in the eighties and nineties, To accrued the filmmaking knowledge to improvise properly, like a jazz musician would. Jazz requires extreme skill. To’s filmmaking is cinematic jazz. It’s not improv like the sort of hackneyed comedy that confuses emotional diarrhea for insight, or structural laziness for true spontaneous creativity. Instead, it utilizes technical skill and insight in the moment to create something of wit, beauty, and style that has the punch of immediacy.

There’s no better way to describe The Mission than as an exceptional jazz riff. The film bears the looseness of great improvisation and the formal exactitude of a masterwork. At 84 minutes, it wastes no time with unnecessary frames, lines of dialogue, or narrative detours; it shows things only once, trusting the viewer to follow along and lending complexity to the work despite its structural simplicity. It is a pure exploration of brotherhood and a compelling piece of action cinema.

9 out of 10

The Mission (1999, Hong Kong)

Directed by Johnnie To; written by Yau Nai-hoi and Milkyway Creative Time; starring Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Jackie Liu, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet, Simon Yam.