Johnnie To’s “The Mission” (1999) more obsessed with gun sounds than plot


Triad boss, Jackie Lung, survives an assassination attempt from Triad underboss, Fat Cheung. Lung goes on to hire five bodyguards for protection that eventually get into their sort of trouble.


Johnnie To’s action films are a genre study unto themselves. He lets the guns do the talking rather than the characters. The violence drives the plot and not the other way around. In The Mission (1999), he focuses so little on character that there’s almost nothing to gain from following the story. The story is virtually dictated by a need for violence to progress To’s vision as he presents hollow scenario writing and a betrayal subplot to justify moving to the next action set piece. It’s not To’s most substantial screenplay. On top of that, the action set pieces are lackluster – the shootout scenes especially. The editing during those sequences provides no innovation and ostensibly moves back and forth from one point of view to the next with not much purpose. All the budget went into the sound design, as I compared the booming gun sounds to a Michael Mann film. And they’re numerous throughout the film. Thankfully, the film is interjected with life through the goofiest original score from Chung Chi-wing. It’s often out of place and doesn’t match the tone, but at the same time, adds a new atmosphere to the piece that breaks up the established tone. As for the final scene, it’s overstuffed with mobster clichés and twists, but wasn’t engaging due to To’s underdeveloped story. Far from Johnnie To’s best work but a simple film to enjoy for the action alone.


  • The opening song with the keyboard sounds rips. And it’s the main theme. Already in love with this film. 
  • First scene opens with characters introducing themselves and then after the title screen goes into a shootout scene. Johnnie isn’t holding back. 
  • The fact that all Johnnie To characters wear the same leather jackets is one of my favorite motifs. It’s an aesthetic that works perfectly for the baddies in his films
  • Enter Frank – a no nonsense yakuza boss that kills people with salem witchcraft adjacent murders (bricks tied to his legs)
  • The music is laid on thick, but I’m absolutely loving every new theme introduced. It’s so beautifully 90s. 
  • Unsure where this one is going early on. Seems as if it’s some revenge thriller with the Triad gang getting revenge on whoever attacked the boss.
  • Many scenes involving guns being loaded and cocked back. Fast cutting to show the amount of guns. The setup scenes are overdone, but necessary and classic To
    • Cut to: epic shootout with the boss being sniped in the chest. Reminded me of Heat with an extra emphasis on exploding gun sounds and dramatic wide shots. Little emphasis on characters so far 
  • The story, on the surface, appears overly simplistic in structure. Boss’ life gets threatened, hires expert bodyguards, and then action set pieces are born out of attacks on him. The real story seems to be focused on other gangs trying desperately to murder the boss. That’s the sole motivation in the script. Nothing remotely personal about it. A more calculated approach to action films.
  • The names of the bodyguards are hilarious: Curtis, James, Frank, Roy and Mike. No, they don’t need to be inherently Chinese names but it’s an interesting decision to make them distinctly American names
  • The aesthetic of 90s malls really sticks out. Plenty of escalator scenes (including one shootout) and the windowed elevators that defined malls back then. Film is weirdly nostalgic. To makes them fight in wide open public areas like malls, but with no people around. Come to think of it, most scenes are devoid of crowds. That’s a choice. 
  • Johnnie To loves his fucking guns. The mall shootout is five minutes long with picturesque compositions and impeccable blocking that feature not a line of dialogue and the only sound is the music and loud, banging gun shots. Well designed scene but doesn’t do much for the story outside of protecting the boss. 
  • The costuming and hair styles have a distinctive look. It’s the cool, laid back, nonchalance that defines this movie amid the threat of violence. But then again, the violence doesn’t seem to bother the characters. Why would it frighten the audience? It’s a bit unclear To wants the audience to take away from their passé attitudes 
  • The music is doing all the heavy lifting in this film. The cinematography and production design creates the visual style. The music creates the mood. I dig it. Best element of the film – music by Chung Chi-wing.
  • First person perspective shot, with the gun’s red dot at the center of the frame. I’ve never seen that in a film, felt as if I was playing Call of Duty
  • On the action set pieces: the gun battles are loud but the actual makeup of these scenes is extremely uninteresting. There’s little movement and nothing advancing these scenes along. It mostly cuts to different characters shooting an entire clip, cutting away for no reason outside of establishing the chaos. These scenes lead to nothing and go on seemingly forever. He overemphasizes the gun sounds. 

  • The actors are given so little to work with here. Nondescript lines but the fact that they’re so casual does fill the screen with moodiness
    • We get a quick, 30 second scene that establishes the brotherhood between the body guards that ends with mugs clinking to “friends forever ” weirdly teenage girl-ish for a violent mob action-thriller. Previously, it felt as if these characters didn’t know each other well, but now they’re brothers. Characterizations need work. 
    • It’s certainly an ensemble piece and hard to keep the characters organized in my thoughts. No single performance stands out aside from Roy Cheung and Lam Suet
  • The scene where a rival mob boss, “Fat Cheung,” gets shot FIVE TIMES in the chest, and continues eating with zero reaction, then dies, is an ALL TIMER. WHAT THE FUCK WAS THAT? AMAZING. The actor’s expression was pissed but controlled. Excellent burst of a short scene. 
  • Man, there are so many quick deaths in the film. 
  • The blue color grading is a look. The grainy texture and rough set dressing build the world of this film. Paints a picture of a shady world that treats danger and violence as ingrained to their culture. It’s not a thing to fear and the dark, shadowy lighting accentuates that.
  • The boss has now disappeared from the story (not literally but he hasn’t made an appearance in 20 minutes). The narrative focus has shifted to the five bodyguards. Shin has an affair with the boss’s wife and their relationship turns threatening. Long scenes of no dialogue, but make sure to emphasize the guns at play without uttering a word.
    • Mrs. Lung, the boss’s wife, sleeps around once and ends up with a silencer to the dome. Next scene, a five way standoff between the boys. Wild action from scene-to-scene. It never stops. Shin gets shot and the others survive. But is then revealed to be shot with a blank to trick Lung. THE BROTHERHOOD PREVAILS. BROS BEFORE HO— I’ll stop. Too much testosterone. 
  • I’ll continue to harp on the original score. It’s so moody and goofy. Moving in atmospheric keyboards and hard edged guitar riffs. Never heard anything else quite like it. 
  • The narrow alleyway shots with heavy shadows are cool. To utilizes alleyways a lot here. 
  • Wow, the film ends with Shin escaping. It just sort of ended. It does bring a resolution, but where the story begins and ends are two wildly separate places. First off, there’s really no central narrative whatsoever. You have a number of recognizable characters with a hint of development,  but dig into the story and there’s a hollow shell of a film. It’s written with the bodyguards in mind and not any sort of compelling drama. There’s shootouts and action set pieces aplenty, but for no good reason other than a certain someone wants someone else dead. That’s the central plot. The plot is so unbelievably overlooked in favor of vibing characters that have no traits and aren’t interesting outside of appearance. It’s a shallow mob film and not the first Johnnie To film I’d show an interested party. However, the music fucking SLAPS

Review: ★★½

Verdict: not weird enough


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