When people think of Hong-Kong action movies, they typically think of John Woo (or at least an slightly exaggerated version of John Woo created through years of parody), but it pays to remember that he is only one component of a rich and storied genre, albeit a particularly well-known one. Among the other directors famous for work in the Hong Kong action scene, few stand out as much as Johnnie To. To shares a lot of preoccupations with Woo — particularly a fascination with heroic bloodshed, codes of honor and male friendships — but contrasts in as many ways as he mirrors his more well-known contemporary. To likes to experiment more, throwing superheroes, romcoms, and even musicals into his body of work; even within the crime/action genre, his work has a distinct feel to it. There’s a clarity of intent to a Johnnie To movie, a methodical drive that allows them to be at once ruthlessly complex and remarkably simple. His plots can be head-twistingly labyrinthine, but are presented in such organic ways that they aren’t nearly as hard to follow as you’d think. While it may not be his most complex narrative, To’s 1999 opus The Mission is emblematic of all his greatest strengths as a director, something that makes it all the more painful that the film is almost unheard of in North America.
The film opens when Lung, a high-ranking figure in the organized crime world, narrowly escapes multiple attempts on his life. Fearing those attempts are coming from within his own organization, Lung hires a group of outsiders to act as his bodyguards. As the job puts them through one harrowing situation after another, the five hired guns begin to bond as a group.
The Mission is a film that almost always finds the simplest yet most effective way to convey information, be it about the characters, a given scene or a major plot point. It’s a symphony of understated, organic storytelling that keeps the viewer continually informed, while not overwhelming them with a barrage of exposition. Within minutes of meeting the characters, we start learning about them through simple interactions and cues. When the team is first presented with the guns they’ll be using on the job, the taciturn Mike sends back his requests for alterations, something meant to clue us in to the fact that he’s the most proficient with firearms. (The film later confirms this during a crucial action sequence, when Mike identifies a sniper on a nearby roof by the sound of his rifle.)
This efficiency of storytelling is present in almost every facet of the film. We see the team bond as friends and comrades through small gestures, like an impromptu football game played with scrunched up paper, and other even smaller instances of friendliness. There are internal struggles and disagreements, like when club owner Roy ditches the group to attend to personal business, prompting a harsh beating from leader Curtis, but these moments of friction only help to deepen the sense of a complex relationship and group dynamic. Again, we see a contrast here with John Woo. While Woo’s films can lean towards the operatic, straying almost into melodramatic territory at times, To proves with The Mission in particular that understatement can be a powerful tool.
The action scenes further help to distance To’s work from Woo’s, eschewing the dynamic and bombastic “gun-ballet” that drove Woo to prominence. The action highlight of The Mission is undoubtedly a sequence in which the group find themselves under fire by yet more assassins in a shopping mall. Rather than dive about emptying clips, they pick a spot and hunker down, either taking cover or picking an angle and covering it, trusting that they’ll be able to draw a bead on any assailant first. It’s a remarkable scene, one that can be surprisingly confusing the first time you watch it; despite how each player remains relatively stationary, To’s editing can occasionally make things confusing. That minor quibble aside, the sequence is one that stands out in an already remarkable film, especially when contrasted with what was going on in other HK action films of the time. Again, the keyword is understated. There’s no frantic, dynamic action — just tension and atmosphere.
So why have you probably never heard of The Mission? Why isn’t mentioned alongside such genre favorites as Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow? In large part, the film’s near-anonymity outside of Hong Kong is due to its criminal lack of any kind of large-scale release in North America. The film has, as of the time of this writing, never received a proper DVD or Blu-Ray release in the West, with only low-quality bootlegs available. At one point, a DVD of decent quality was made available in France, but region locking and a lack of English subtitles keep this from being a viable option for most North American viewers. Be it due to lack of interest or perhaps an issue involving distribution rights for the film, The Mission is something North American Hong Kong action fans won’t be able to see through legitimate channels.
This notable absence from the North American DVD market is disconcerting to say the least, especially as DVD and Blu-Ray sales begin to die off in favor of streaming; the window is closing for The Mission’s North American fanbase to finally get their hands on a copy. Given that a little-known Hong Kong actioner is bound to be low on the priorities list for Netflix and other streaming service’s acquisition teams, it may soon be the case that legally ambiguous channels are the only path to viewing the film in North America. Hopefully some intrepid DVD label or streaming service changes this soon, however, as The Mission deserves all the exposure that a proper North American release would entail.