The Mission by Johnnie To (Review)

A stylish hitman film that deserves a much better ending.
The Mission - Johnnie To

Aghhh!!! I really, really, really want to like the movies of Johnny To, but he never lets me! First, Running Out Of Time promised to be a great thriller, with the right mix of action, drama, suspense, and psychology. And it was that for so long, right until the film dived into melodramaticism and romanticism. But always being ready to give the benefit of the doubt, I popped in this award-winning film and settled in. And I really liked what I saw, a movie that looked like it could breath some new life into Hong Kong gangster movies (apparently, they’ve been getting fairly staid). It was hip, stylish, and above all else, interesting. And then it all fell apart in the last 5 minutes.

Lung, a powerful crimeboss, is almost killed in a hit. His righthand man, Frank, assembles 5 men from different backgrounds for a mission; to protect Lung and find out who ordered the hit. At first, the 5 men don’t seem to have too much in common. Roy is a clubowner hassled by toughs moving in on his territory. Curtis runs several businesses, including a hair salon, but he’s also a ruthless killer. This is Shin’s first job, and he hopes it will increase his reputation. Mike is tired of being a valet, and sees this job as an opportunity to get ahead in life. And James… well, James just seems to want to eat.

As these 5 men spend all of their time together, friendships begin. They never get buddy-buddy (these are killers and thugs after all), but trust and loyalty does start to build up. There’s never an outright display of friendship; half the time, they act like they can’t stand each other. But there are small moments, such as when the 5 engage in an impromptu soccer match in the office, where they kid around and seem like normal blokes. But they’re professionals, first and foremost. As soon as Lung enters the room, it’s all business.

To be honest, I really liked this way of looking at the lifestyle. Too often, movies tend to romanticize the gangster. Half the time, those hardened hitmen come off as big, fuzzy dopes. Not so here. And To plays up that tension between the 5. At times, you don’t know if one of them is going to snap, if the paranoia of the job is going to get to them.

For much of the film, To’s direction is flawless, emphasizing this tension and the danger of their situation. One scene in particular just screams “hardcore.” The five men are escorting Lung through a closed shopping mall when the assassins strike. Instead of a violent ballet of bullets a la John Woo, To keeps it restrained. Calmly, almost methodically, the men escort Lung out to safety and hold off the assassins with dogged patience. Compared to Woo’s hyperkinetic style, the pace is almost maddening. However, this restraint gives any sudden outburst, be it a gunshot or a quick movement, an intensity it wouldn’t have otherwise.

I loved watching the dynamics of this motley crew. Again, unlike Woo’s emotional outbursts, the personal interactions are almost nonexistent. They don’t care about each other as friends. They’re more like business partners. If one of them is killed, it’s not a loss. It’s an inconvenience. It just means the mission will be harder to accomplish. But that stoicism means that any sort of emotional connection, any sort of friendly action, takes on a whole new meaning. To handles the emotion like he handles the action, with less being much, much more.

But there are 2 things that bother me about the movie. The first (and I know this might sound trivial) is the music. We’re supposed to believe that these guys are BMF’s, and yet the music is composed with the help of a Casio keyboard and its demo button. What you hear is at complete odds with what you see, especially during the final showdown with the assassins. Any doubt as to the crew’s collective badness should be put to rest here, but it’s ruined when they walk out, Reservoir Dogs style, to some cheesy synth tune.

But what really ruins this movie is its ending. Granted, we’re not talking about anything on the level of A.I. here, but it still irks me. To makes the same mistake here that he did with Running Out Of Time; he ends the movie in a way that feels out of place, even unfaithful to everything else that’s transpired beforehand.

After successfully completing their job, the other 4 learn that Shin had an affair with Lung’s wife. As professionals, they can’t allow Shin to get away with this, even if he acted out of naivete. But their burgeoning loyalty complicates things. Well, except for Curtis, who sets out to kill Shin that night.

I’ll give you three guesses as to how the movie ends. And I guess it works on an emotional, Hallmark level, but it just feels wrong. We’re supposed to believe that these guys are hardened professionals struggling with their loyalty to each other, to their boss, and to their job. But the movie just feels like it takes the easy way out with a sudden “twist” ending. It feels sloppy and contrived, and renders their emotional struggle meaningless.

I will grant To this. After watching Running Out of Time, I didn’t know if I ever wanted to see another Johnny To film. I know that sounds harsh, but that’s the way I felt after my high expectations for Running Out of Time were, well, dashed. I didn’t know The Mission was a To film until I started watching it. And despite my gripes, there’s a lot in this film that works incredibly well as a drama, an action movie, and a crime film. If my criticism of the ending sounds harsh, it’s simply because the rest of the film is so freakin’ good that I just feel it deserves better.