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The Mission (Johnny To) 1999


Johnny Toís sedated action film The Mission begins with one of its lead characters playing a frenetically paced dancing game in a video arcade. That burst of energy is the only one that we see for a long time in this film, which is more interested in the extensive amount of time that a bodyguard does nothing than in the standard shootouts that usually populate films in the genre. When the The Missionís most ambitious set piece finally arrives, forty-five minutes into the filmís eighty one minute running time, itís only after weíve watched a great deal of planning and busywork. This occupation, says the movie, is a waiting manís game. The motley crew of guardians (which include, among others, a pimp and a hairdresser) assembled to protect a crime lord are fully aware of these dynamics. They have no idea how long a given assignment will last, and one quips that he can ďdo this eight or ten years.Ē The majority of the film, which plays more like a slowly burning fuse than an exploding bomb, focuses on the spaces between the scenes that we seen in other action films.


Even the filmís biggest action scene, which takes place in an eerily quiet shopping mall, feels somewhat muted. The team of bodyguards stand around, like mannequins striking a threatening pose, waiting for their enemies to make a wrong move. Their motionlessness under pressure is an asset, however, and that calm only makes them seem cooler. Throughout the film, their inactivity is stressed. Cars donít start, snipers donít show themselves, and even a sexual encounter thatís important to the plot is kept off screen to preserve narrative stasis. The bodyguards keep themselves busy, playing soccer with a balled up piece of paper as they lounge in a waiting room, and waiting for the literal slow burn of a cigarette to explode into a practical joke. To creates a great degree of tension out of his minimalist aesthetic, because when weíre used to nothing happening, anything becomes a thrill. The Mission isnít necessarily a great film, since itís too impressed with its own sluggishness to ever inspire the audience, but that slowness is also the distinctive filmís greatest asset. Personally, I prefer the kinetic work of Woo to this film, which could be described as Hard Boiled via Peter Weir, but I can appreciate the tension that builds by the filmís third act, in which simply waiting for a phone to ring becomes a matter of life and death.




Jeremy Heilman