The Mission

The Mission ★★★★★

An "assemble the crew" film that is very, very pared down, i.e. 10% assembling and 90% action which, if you know your math, leaves 0% exposition; almost minimalistic in its execution, with a score that you'll swear you thought was corny at some point but can't remember when, because by the end of it , its the coolest thing ever.

Johnnie To doesn't take his action to operatic levels like Woo so that HK's biggest superstars can transcend the mortal plane, but opts for the slick, stylish cool that allows some of HK cinema's often underappreciated stalwarts - a positively glacial Anthony Wong Chau San in particular, but also fantastic turns from Roy Cheung, Lam Suet and the always dependable Simon Yam - to shine instead. In that sense he is more akin to Melville than Scorcese, with a laser-focus on the process, and accoutrements, rather than reasons or motives.

Recently I have been thinking about how much I enjoy the violence portrayed in HK films in particular, after some exchanges with one of the best writers here, Lara, about how we both disliked it in The Suicide Squad, but why I like it in films such as this.

I am starting to think it may be because in The Suicide Squad, the violence feels like pageantry. Atrocity after atrocity is committed, but never really acknowledged. Its almost as if The Suicide Squad thinks that violence itself doesn't exist in the real world, and so its morality need never be in question.

But seeing The Mission, while I enjoy To's style, and I may vicariously feel cool being in Anthony Wong's shoes, there's no doubt that actually being in that situation would be terrible. That his personality becomes ice because its the only way to survive. There's no redemption for anyone here, and no attempt at moralising their actions away. Kill or be killed is a fact of the matter, not aspirational.

There's also definitely the element of craft as well, which is very clear now. James Gunn's direction depicts a 13yr old's vision of an action scene (which can work well in lighter, family-friendly situations), but Johnnie To shows how the big boys do it, especially with a shootout scene at the mall that can only be described as clinical, with certain shots blocked in such a way that the shooters can be mistaken for mannequins. His ability to have all the characters in motion while also having them do different things, but also have it be one fluid motion, is just astounding, and making me rethink every other action film I've seen.

There's also the aspect of the "bonding" moments of the crew. The "bonding" moment in The Suicide Squad is a shell; these aren't characters bonding organically because of events that happened in the story. No, this is the "bonding" of celebrities who hope that their natural charm and charisma will make you overlook the fact that their characters massacred a small army of people with little effort on their part, all as a throwaway joke. In The Mission, however, the small moments of bonding between the crew feel genuine. These are all assholes, close to being the worst people on the earth - and they know that. They know that everyday could be their last because of the way they've chosen to lead their lives, and there's no pearly gates waiting for any of them. So the only people they can truly share a beer with is each other, even if on any other day one of their faces might be the last the other ever sees - or perhaps, because of that. Friendships in their world are expensive, ethereal, and deadly, so you have to take those moments when you can.

Johnnie To doesn't take brotherhood to a spiritual level like John Woo, but in some ways, it's more affecting, almost feels like it is within reach. There are no doves flying as the men declare their (un)dying loyalty to each other, but there is a scene where the bodyguards improvise a game of football from a curled up paper to stave off boredom, which instantly brought me back to 5th grade. They may hurt and kill for a living, but these characters have more humanity than any of the superhumans in The Suicide Squad. Maybe the worst aspect of humanity, sure, but its still human, and therefore, there's still hope.

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