There’s really nothing one can say that will adequately describe this film. I keep trying, but my tongue tangles with superfluous superlatives: excellent, great, superb, marvellous, impossibly good. I feel like I’ve regressed to my teen years, abandoning the maturity which I’m supposed to have gained by now.
Okay, then, I’ll give it a try. First up, this is one of director To’s best films. It exemplifies all of To’s strong points: visually stunning scenes, minimal dialogue, strongly defined characters, and consistent and engaging plot. There’s a soundtrack that underscores and supports the action beautifully, without distracting you from the visuals. And To’s composition, from the positioning of cast members to the lighting, is superb. Every frame is evocative.
So, it’s a fine example of the work of a talented director. What else? Well, there’s the cast: an ensemble of some of the best, and often under-rated, actors in Hong Kong. The whole cast works beautifully together, from Simon Yam as the expansive lieutenant of the Big Boss, to Jackie Lui as the most junior member of the team. Yam’s character, Frank, is a bit of a departure for the urbane Yam, but he carries it off with aplomb and verve.
For my money, the best chemistry is between Curtis and Roy, played by Wong and Ng respectively. These two are fantastically talented actors who’ve worked together for years, and are also friends off-screen. Curtis, a hitman known as “Ice” who’s given up killing for upmarket hairdressing, returns to the underworld as a special favour to the Big Boss, while Roy is a middle-market triad whose main occupation is running bars and beating people up. Curtis’ unflappable calm meets Roy’s volatile temper in a few scenes that are pure To: scenes that are so believable that you wonder whether there was a real disagreement off-screen fuelling the on-screen tension.
Anyone who’s read many of my reviews will know that I’m a big fan of Ng, who is capable of some of the most scenery-chewing performances out there (Bride With White Hair), as well as some of the most subtle and moving (Juliet In Love, Bullets Over Summer). And this is vintage Ng, of the subtle variety: he hardly needs to speak at all, managing as he does to convey a wealth of meaning in the way he turns his head, or with one piercing look from those slightly crossed eyes.
And of course Wong is another master of this subtlety, and the two strike sparks off each other without even moving. It’s pure magic. Backing them up, there’s the stolid presence of the incomparable Lam Suet, the youthful exuberance of Jackie Lui, and the imperturbable strength of Roy Cheung. And Roy’s chest, because it deserves its own mention.
But it’s still hard to adequately describe this film. Any review might be able to cover the salient points, but would only approach the quality in the same way that a few pints of water and some assorted minerals would only approach a human: you can describe the components but you can’t capture the reality.
So I’ll only say this: The Mission is one of the best Hong Kong films ever. Watch it, or earn my undying scorn.