Highly schematic, but tempered with a playfulness that’s completely new to helmer Johnnie To, “The Mission” reps a quantum leap away from the moody, labyrinthine crimers that the Hong Kong director-producer has made with his Milkyway Image over the past couple of years (“The Longest Nite,” “Expect the Unexpected”). Grouping together some of his favorite actors, though this time without regular Lau Ching-wan, pic is classic latenight fest fare that will have considerable mileage on ancillary.
Though the movie appears to wrap up one episode in To’s career and open a door to another, he conceived the idea two years ago. Finished product was tailored around the slim budget and shot in an amazing 18 days, and the resulting leanness aids the pic’s spare, balletic style.
A mobster is shot to death, with gunfire (original Chinese title’s meaning) heard under the main title. Aging triad Lung (Ko Hung), who was almost wasted in the hit, tells sidekick Frank (Simon Yam) to find out who was responsible, and Frank hires five guns to bodyguard his boss. There’s impassive Curtis (Anthony Wong), steely Roy (Francis Ng) and his young disciple Shin (Jackie Lui), hatchet-faced shooter Mike (Roy Cheung) and taciturn, peanut-chewing James (Lam Suet), a firearms expert.
Three assassination attempts later — by a rooftop sniper (Keiji Sato), in a shopping mall and around a warehouse — they finally work out that Fat Chung (Wong Tin-lan) was behind the hits. But that’s just the start of further complex game-playing within the group of five killers.
Picture trades on some of the themes of To’s previous productions, such as brotherhood and loyalty to codes, but turns them on their heads by making the five protags pawns in a much greater game. These are no longer characters in charge of their own destinies but, rather, killing machines for hire whose targets could just as well be one another as a common enemy.
As such, the movie’s success depends much on the casting, and here To has come up trumps, collecting a bunch of colorful actors with notable onscreen rap sheets and simply letting them play off one another. Sometimes, as in the stylized mall shootout, To trades on their cool-looking, iconic status; at others, either kicking around a paper ball or playing a game with cigarettes, he seems to give them an idea and let them run with it.
Cheng Siu-keung’s widescreen lensing is aces throughout, and composer Ching Chi-wing’s repetitive, Morricone-like riff a major asset in sustaining the game-like tone.