The Mission

In this most recent Milkyway film (12/99), director Johnnie To once again creates a world full of tough guys, friendships, honor and death. This is strictly a man’s world in which women have no part and can only cause trouble. The men here don’t even seem to need them or want them – as the act of male bonding seems to be a much higher calling. This is a world where death comes often and comes quickly though not always easily. Sometimes death comes in the flash of the moment, other times it is slow and drawn out, other times you can see it coming at you – but you can only smile or go on eating.
Simon Yam, Lam Suet, Anthony Wong
Johnnie To somehow manages to keep mining this same territory and coming up with something fresh and interesting. Here the outer package may seem used – a plot that in itself is not all that original – but To scrambles it all up – takes a different angle on everything – gives it a few twists – and directs an absolutely wonderful film. Following up stylistically to some extent on his recent efforts – Where a Good Man Goes and Running Out of Time, To again forsakes the experimentalism of the earlier Milkyway films. Though it has a few unexpected turns, for the most part the story is simple and straightforward – and though the cinematography and editing are brilliant in their precision and the way in which they allow the scenes to slowly unfold – there is nothing very splashy about it.
This is a film that is extremely dependent on the actors for its success. If you don’t buy into their characters and like them to some degree  - the film will not work. Fortunately, To has put together a superb ensemble cast in which no one actor gets to dominate – and everyone has enough room to create an interesting character and enough room to display some charisma and attitude – and this film has plenty of both. Simply put, these guys are all very cool.
Wong, Lui Chung-yin and Roy Cheung
The plot as I mentioned is very basic. A top triad head – Eddie Ko – has someone trying to kill him. He is able to escape the first attempt – and then has his right-hand man, Simon Yam, put together a team of five bodyguards from the outside. Men that can be trusted and are very good at what they do. They reminded me a bit of the Magnificent Seven – all very different from one another. From the old pro – Anthony Wong – who has retired and is now a barber (and by the way Wong looks great here – as he has lost all the weight he put on when he was ill) to the young kid (Lui Chung-yin) just starting out. The group is rounded out with Francis Ng, Roy Cheung and Lam Suet. All of them are terrific and their characters become very much flesh and blood as the film progresses.
There are various attempts on Ko’s life and they are all handled so smoothly by To. What really stands out about the action scenes is how incredibly patient To is in allowing them to unfold. He never rushes the scenes but instead allows the tension and the reality to often just hang there in tingling suspension before more action kicks in. Often what feels like long stretches of time go by while the five of them wait for the next move from the killers – and the camera moves effortlessly back and forth between them. A shoot up in a mall is one of the best-choreographed scenes I have come across – no wild John Woo set piece – but slow – meticulous – methodical - and beautifully paced.

And that is nearly it. The film really is about these five guys coming together as first professionals and then friends – as they literally face death from moment to moment. This kind of job forces them to follow a certain code – loyalty, courage and absolute reliance on one another. If you follow that code you will receive the utmost respect, if not – the utmost disdain. When one of the five leaves another behind in a situation that is understandable, he still must redeem himself by killing the enemy of this man.

Lam Suet and Roy Cheung
But just when you think the film is coming to a close, To puts a spin on things that sets it off in a completely new direction full of perplexing issues that will really test the concepts of friendship and loyalty among the five of them.
One last point to make and really the only thing about this film that I didn’t like. To’s recent films have really left me wondering what his attitude towards women is. In Running Out of Time they are basically non-existent.  In A Hero Never Dies the two women are tough – but are basically extensions of their two men. In Where a Good Man Goes, Ruby Wong has an inner strength – but at the same time is willing to take lots of abuse from Lau Ching-Wan. And now in this film, there is only one female with more than a walk-on role and To makes her void of personality – almost a death carrying virus. One has to wonder whether he has some personal things happening in his own life that he is carrying into his films. It is hard to imagine that this is the same director of Heroic Trio and producer of Beyond Hypothermia. It seems that unless a woman is a superheroine or an assassin, To has no use for them. Nevertheless:

My rating for this film: 8.5

Lui Chung-yin, A. Wong, Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, Francis Ng