If 1999’s “The Mission” proves anything, it’s that filmmaker Johnnie To is better as a solo filmmaker than he ever was when working with frequent collaborator Ka-Fai Wong, whose presence on a Johnnie To movie has led to some unmitigated disasters in a number of genres. Working as the sole director from a tight, crisp, and smart screenplay by Nai-Hoi Yau (“Running Out of Time”), To dispels that awful axiom, “two heads are better than one.”
“The Mission” stars Anthony Wong (“Infernal Affairs”) as Curtis, a professional bodyguard who works as a barber in-between jobs, and who is hired, along with 4 others, to protect a mob boss trying to become legitimate. Although Curtis is the unquestionable leader, he’s joined by James (Suet Lam), a long-time friend and gunsmith; Roy (Francis Ng), another would-be leader with his own sets of code; Mike (Roy Cheung), an up-and-comer and skilled gunman; and finally Shin (Jackie Lui), an anxious and inexperienced newcomer who is probably too chatty for his own good. Their mission is simple: keep the client alive until the identity of the conspirators can be unveiled.
Running at a scant 80 minutes, “The Mission” is deceptively simple. But there is so much more to its short running length and (purposely) limited dialogue. There is so little talking in the movie, in fact, that it might take a couple of viewings to notice all of the interweaving subplots, the wordless looks, and the subtle and confusing (at first glance) character motivations. Using a quick pace and minimalist camera setups, there’s a lot to “The Mission” in the background than there is in the foreground. It pays to pay attention.
As the lead, Anthony Wong epitomizes all 5 bodyguards. Professional, loyal, and discreet to the core, Wong’s Curtis doesn’t have to say everything he means, because men like Roy and James are there to read his expressions. The inexperienced and younger set is represented by Shin and Mike — but especially in the green Shin, who can’t seem to stand still and constantly talks about “the life” even though no one else seems to be responding. It’s Shin’s sometimes too flippant attitude that eventually gets the team in unexpected trouble.
There are two stellar action sequences in “The Mission” that by themselves are worth the price of admission. One takes place early on, when the bodyguards are pinned down by a sniper; the other takes place halfway through inside a mall. The individual skills of the men, and their ability to work as one unit, comes through in the mall gunfight, which Johnnie To shoots as if it was a play, with everyone in their right places and every bullet accounted for. The scene reminded me a lot of John Woo’s elaborate gunbattles, which sometimes seem more like ballet. Although the movie has a number of good action scenes, the gunbattle at the mall outranks them all.
Another plus for “The Mission” is its large and talented cast. Although the gangland scenery is familiar, the film really goes out of its way to expand on its main and supporting characters, and does so without all the usual clunky exposition. Eddy Ko plays the marked mafioso, an elderly man struggling to go legit despite the odds. Ko’s Lung has a friend in his younger brother Frank (the always affable Simon Yam), who is as loyal to his brother as he is determined to get down to the bottom of the assassination plot. There’s something to be said about a movie that gives flesh and blood properties to background characters even when it doesn’t have to, which “The Mission” does without letting on that it’s doing so.
Toward its final Third Act, “The Mission” throws in a twist that no one could have seen coming. And no, it’s not what you think. Anyone who has seen any number of movies in the vein of “The Mission” will be expecting some familiar twists and turns, but they will be disappointed. Writer Nai-Hoi Yau has determined to make the movie, if not completely original, then unfamiliar even to those used to the terrain.
“The Mission” serves up an exhilarating Third Act that, surprisingly, doesn’t involve nearly as much gunplay as you would think for a film in this genre. It’s about personality clashes, about loyalty, honor, and most of all, professionalism. When push comes to shove, and lives are on the line, what is the price of professionalism? Or for that matter, what is the price of friendship?
Johnnie To (director) / Nai-Hoi Yau (screenplay)
CAST: Anthony Wong …. Curtis
Francis Ng …. Roy
Jackie Lui …. Shin
Roy Cheung …. Mike
Suet Lam …. James
Simon Yam …. Frank