Criterion Prediction #137: The Mission, by Alexander Miller
Title: The Mission
Director: Johnnie To
Cast: Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, Lam Suet, Eddy Ko, Roy Cheung, Francis Ng, Eddy Ko,
Synopsis: A triad boss assembles a crack team of hired guns for protection after narrowly escaping an assassination attempt. As the team guards the targeted leader, those responsible for ordering the hit are found out.
Critique: The landscape of Hong Kong’s cinema had undergone a tidal of change from the time leading up to and after the handover of the former crown colony to mainland China. While the once great actions auteurs John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Ringo Lam were fuddling about in Hollywood with mostly middling results, To and Wai Ka-Fai formed one of the most successful independent studios, Hong Kong Milkyway Image. The balletic flurry of slow-motion shootouts we had come to associate with Hong Kong genre films had been succeeded by a more modern and articulate aesthetic that was typified by To in one of the director’s finest outings, his 1999 film The Mission. To had ascended through the Hong Kong movie industry, worked in a myriad of popular genres (wuxia, slapstick comedy, action, musical), and arrived as a steely and astute action auteur with The Mission. A modern stylist in the best sense of the word, To draws inspiration from screen artists before him in creating his voice. Genre filmmaking is uniquely engaging because it reads like a roadmap. To is taking cues from the taciturn stoicism that was the hallmark of Jean Pierre Melville, which informed the procedural crime thrillers of Michael Mann and the dutiful ethical compass you’d find in the westerns of Sam Peckinpah and samurai films of (but not restricted to) Akira Kurosawa. And the evidence of To’s originality is that there are hints of his forebears but no overt homage. The Mission is a tightly wound gangster film with no shortage of action while it winnows out a deliberate pace and narrative. Like Melville, To can parry and exchange the measured elements of crime and coded ethics of gangsterdom while doling out explosive bursts of geometrically staged shootouts. The Mission is as forward as its one-word title. To evade assassination, a Triad boss assembles a team of gangsters for protection against a rival faction that wants him dead. The mechanics and formation of the gang are elaborate; each player has their sly characteristics that eschew conventions as much as conforming to them – James (Lam Suet) is a peanut chomping firearms expert while Curtis aka The Ice (Anthony Wong) moonlights as a hairdresser when he’s not a hired killer. Along with Anthony Wong and Lam Suet, there’s Simon Yam, Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, Jackie Lui, Wong Tin, and Eddy Ko. All are staple players that are recurring in the director’s body of work and there’s evident chemistry in the sidestepping narrative diversions. The crew fine-tuning their armory is a casually brilliant bit of business that is one of the film’s highlights. The nonchalant tone reinforces the dutiful atmosphere and professionality of each player. Barrels are cleaned; trigger pull is tested; chambers are pulled; Cheung, after handling his pistol with the intuitive grace of a diamond cutter, hands his gun to Lam, casually requesting that he “add two pounds to the recoil spring.” Unlike the vulgar fetishism of firearms that we see in American action films, To brings their actual presence to the film. Instead of trying to brandish the phallocentric male ritualism in evoking the character’s connection to firearms, he merely shows us that these guys are pros.
To has been referred to as “The Jerry Bruckheimer of Hong Kong.” While there’s a consistency in their shared voluminous output, To is more akin to a Melville-inspired Mann whose eastern influence lends an elevated moral code.
Why It Belongs in the Collection: To’s reputation seems to be caught between that of a cult figure and a renowned auteur. There’s nothing wrong with being both, and the terms are not mutually exclusive, but it seems like the prolific Hong Kong filmmaker deserves more recognition. That’s not saying a Criterion release legitimizes a director or their movies, but if there’s a gap that Criterion seems to breach is that genre filmmaking is, in its way an art form, and those who create movies like Thief, Robinson Crusoe on Mars, and Cat People are artists.
This week’s selection for a To film was a toss-up between The Mission and Mad Detective (since the later was released by The Masters of Cinema Collection) but The Mission is available on Filmstruck. There’s support for the inclusion of the film in forums and blogs; one standout article is James McCormick’s “Top Ten Johnnie To Films That Should Be in the Criterion Collection.” Most importantly, on home video, The Mission is only available on a primitive Mei Ah Entertainment DVD, (which, like most first generation DVD’s from this distribution company are glorified Laserdisc upgrades) which is rumored to be OOP. Seeing as the director has such a large body of work, The Mission is an accessible jumping off point for newcomers and a relative fan favorite.