The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Saturday, January 1, 2011

The Mission

Peruse through my reviews over the last year and a half, and you're sure to find a fair share of men on a mission movies. It is a type of movie that crosses all sorts of genre lines and boundaries.  Just thinking off the top of my head, I can think of these movies that are westerns, WWII, spies, heists, and many more.  Thanks to Netflix though, I've been expanding my movie horizons, and that's how I stumbled onto 1999's The Mission.

It is a Hong Kong action movie that's gained a bit of a cult status over the last 10 years, and for good reason.  This is a good movie.  I haven't really seen any Asian action movies with the exception of Infernal Affairs and The Good, the Bad and the Weird, but just from quickly reading up about them, there a ton of good ones to recommend.  Stylish and action-packed, there's not much to dislike about them.  Okay, the DVD I got had the video quality of a widescreen bootleg, but that's the distributor's fault, not the movie.

When his brother, Mr. Lung (Eddy Ko), narrowly survives a hit attempt, Frank Lung (Simon Yam) hires a team of bodyguards to work together to protect his older brother until the threat can be eliminated. Leading the group of bodyguards is a well-known name in the underworld, a hair stylist named Curtis (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) who has a reputation as being loyal, capable and always finishing what he's hired for. The other four hires come from all walks of life with different backgrounds, but they intend to see this job through.  The quintet gels quickly, preventing several more hit attempts, but just when it seems they're unstoppable Frank delivers a twist to Curtis.  One of the four had an affair with Mr. Lung's wife and has to be eliminated.  What will the group do? Turn one of their own in, or stick together and shoot it out?

Director/producer extraordinaire Johnnie To has done it all in the movie business in Hong Kong from action movies to romantic comedies and everything in between. If this is an example of all his movies, the guy's got some serious talent.  One reviewer pointed out this is the type of crime thriller French director Jean-Pierre Melville would have made in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the description is dead-on.  This is a bare-minimum type of movie, sparse sets with little decoration, brief dialogue with characters exchanging looks and glances that say more than words ever could, and characters who do unpleasant things not because they like it, just because they're good at it.  And at just 83 minutes, not a minute is wasted along the way.  To sets out the outline and goes with it, not a stray storyline anywhere in sight.

Maybe the biggest positive when watching foreign movies is you have little history or background with most -- if not all -- of the cast.  They're playing a character that you can either like or dislike, but that's all.  The five bodyguards reminded me in a lot of ways of The Magnificent Seven, honor bound only by their word and little else.  Chau-Sang is the leader of few words, a hair stylist of all things who does these security details and unsavory jobs on the side.  He looks like anything but a killer, and that's what he's counting on.  Rounding out his team are Roy (Francis Ng), a club owner with a temper, Shin (Jackie Lui Chung-yin), the youngster trying to gain a name for himself, Mike (Roy Cheung), a quiet, assured man with a gun, and James (Suet Lam), the chubby killer and black market guns supplier. They click right away and work beautifully as a team, becoming friends in the process.  That just makes it nastier when they might have to turn on one of their own.

What impressed me here -- among many other things -- was the execution of the action scenes.  The opener (the attempt on Mr. Lung) is unexplained.  We're just dropped into a standoff in a bar without knowing who any of the participants are.  Once the team is formed, we see them working together on several more botched attempts on Mr. Lung.  One, an attempt in a poorly lit alleyway -- watch HERE -- is chaotic without being confusing.  You're always aware where everyone is, and what they're trying to do.  The highlight later is a tension-packed attempt in a mall about to close.  Gunmen wait around every corner and beam, and Curtis and his team stoically stand still waiting for their chance. Check it out HERE. From the director's chair, To lets these action scenes develop and amps up the intensity by just sitting back and letting that natural tension take over.

Of course, I can't say I loved everything about this movie.  The flaws though are minor ones, and in the grand scheme of things won't change me from giving a very positive rating.  For one, the musical score sounds out of place to me.  I'm glad some blaring soundtrack that buries the action and story wasn't used, but this score was too soft, too quiet.  The other problem was the ending.  It could have been the subtitles -- which I'm sure missed some things -- or maybe just my missing something, but I'm not exactly sure what happened.  If what I think happened actually went down, we don't have a problem with the ending.  But all in all, a great action movie I'm glad I stumbled upon.

The Mission <---trailer (1999): *** 1/2 /****

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