Wednesday, May 25, 2016

The Mission

   Johnnie To is a name I really should be more familiar with by now. He's one of the genre juggernauts when it comes to HK crime thrillers. As far as I know though, The Mission is my first To flick, and it made a hell of a first impression. A straightforward story is balanced with calculated shootouts and a timely sense of humor. I've seen enough HK cinema that I recognized most of the actors here, even if I couldn't pick em out by name. The whole cast was turning in great performances, it was entrancing. The Mission kept me glued to the screen from beginning to end. Can't complain about this lean little crime thriller.

   The watchability of the movie hinged on how engaging this ensemble of lead characters was going to be. Thankfully, they were incredibly entertaining and fun to watch. This is a big deal. The story is simple, a local crime boss has been targeted for assassination by an unknown rival, so the boss enlists the five best men he knows to be his bodyguards until the threat goes away. Each one of the bodyguards has a unique personality, and To balances them as an ensemble really well. Some of them expect that this assignment might take up to 8 years to see completed. Others can't wait to get back to their every day life. One runs a bar, another is a hair stylish, but on this mission- they're all gunmen.

   The mission is more of a thriller than an action movie, but the emphasis is never on the story. The emphasis is on the drama and tension surrounding the repeated assassination attempts. The bodyguards take their mandate to the next level eventually and try to actually find out who is behind everything. It's not a mystery movie, it's not even really a crime drama. It's just... an understated action thriller. The shootouts in the movie are styled in a unique way, proving to be a powerful counter-argument to the beautifully choreographed chaos and carnage of a John Woo flick. The action in The Mission, like the movie as a whole, is understated and methodical.

   For every double-fisted gun-wielding hitman who ever jumped through the air in a Woo flick, there's at least three beats of someone cooly sweating it out behind cover in The Mission. Gun fights in this movie aren't about the volume of bullets fired, or the amount of blood spilled, but rather making each shot count. A standout sequence in a shopping mall highlights my point perfectly. The bodyguards face off with a few would-be killers, and the whole thing unfolds carefully, slowly, and methodically. Beat. Beat. Beat. When someone does get shot, or when guns are fired, it's after small eternities of built up suspense and tension.

   When violence does finally erupt, it's a cathartic release for the audience as all the tension and suspense comes to a climactic head. The action in The Mission isn't my favorite style, but one can't deny how powerful and unique it is. I enjoyed it. Guns play a big role in the movie even beyond the legitimate action scenes. They're an extension of each character, revealing a bit of their personality in how they behave with guns, their own gun, and even around guns in general. Guns are also frequently the sole tool used to resolve any kind of conflict in the movie. One bad guy was held by a few of the bodyguards in a room overnight, awaiting orders. One of them gives him a cigarette, and mere seconds later is given the order to kill him. It's a stunning scene, I loved it.

   The movie is also surprisingly upbeat despite it's grim subject matter, maintaining a low key but persistent sense of humor throughout. The movie takes the time to wonder how boring this assignment must be when there's no running or shooting. What else could lead five grown, professionals to get their kicks out of footing around a small balled up piece of paper in an office waiting room? It's easily my favorite scene in the movie, and it's played very low key, but it's so much fun. The impromptu soccer match begins between two of the more mischievous bodyguards, and the ball ends up at the feet of one of the older, more serious men. You'd think the game would've been over right then, thankfully it wasn't. It was funny, relatable and unexpected. How many times have you done something stupid or silly out of boredom in a waiting room?

   Mutilating a paper cup? Shooting hoops ala trashcan? Same concept. It humanizes the bodyguards and adds a bit of personality to them as well. But, overall, the movie is about loyalty and empathy. You wouldn't guess the latter moral at first, but it becomes apparent later on. In summary, The Mission is a pretty great movie. I'd own it and re-watch it. It might not be amazing, but it's a well crafted piece of entertainment. I couldn't have asked for more.

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