Johnnie To has never really gotten the same kind of hype or critical acclaim as some of his other Hong Kong counterparts, but he has developed into one of the most reliable directors of unapologetic action cinema in the world today. He is a stylist, but he never forgets about the audience and the simple act of storytelling. He knows that bravura set pieces are important, but he makes sure that each one pushes the story forward. His work is lean with the occasional operatic flourish. He is, in many ways, the model of the b-movie filmmaker in the 21st century.
And his latest, “Vengeance,” is a humdinger.
There’s a hit on a family in the film’s opening moments, leaving the mother alive but severely injured, while her husband and children are all murdered. Her father, a French chef with a very successful restaurant, flies to Hong Kong to visit her, crushed by what’s happened. He wants revenge, and quickly establishes himself as a man of means, a man with violence in his own past, a man who is ready to do anything to hurt the ones who hurt him.
There are so many revenge movies in the world that it’s really difficult to imagine any new spin on things. What matters at this point is that you play your particular riff well, and Johnnie To, working from a script by Ka-Fai Wai, has a couple of things on his side with this film. First, there’s his lead actor, French pop star legend Johnny Hallyday. He’s not a household name in America, but he’s got a lot of international weight, and for an American audience, just imagine if Elvis Presley were still alive today and decided to star in “Taken.” That’s pretty much what “Vengeance” is.
The other clever idea here is that Hallyday is suffering from a degenerative condition which is eroding his memory. Once he finds and hires a team of local hit men in Hong Kong (it’s a great scene when they first run into each other), he has to take Polaroid pictures of them so he can write their name under each face. He’s got this great ragged hangdog face, and once he starts to reveal his own proclivity for mayhem, it seems like a perfectly natural form of expression for him. By making a French gangster movie in Hong Kong, To is sort of working in John Woo’s realm, but this doesn’t feel like John Woo’s films. To is a strong enough voice that he incorporates his stylistic precedents in an original way that is all his. Hallyday ties this to Gallic pop culture of the ’60s in a very immediate way that you can’t get from mere homage. He plays everything with this flat affect, like he’s already dead, and I thought it was a nice, spare performance.
I love the control exhibited by To during his major set pieces, even when it’s something as simple as Costello looking for his hit men in the rain. When you do get to some of the big action scenes, like this one stunner that uses giant bales of paper or Anthony Wong’s amazing final stand, they deliver some amazing images and energy. I would say that these are among the most impressive individual action sequences that To has staged in any of this films, but he seems to top himself effortlessly each time out at this point, so it’s almost a given.
The supporting cast is very strong, featuring a number of To regulars, and the film’s photography by Siu-keung Cheng and Hung Mo To is superlative. I want to pick up the Blu-ray release of this one because I would imagine there are a number of sequences that I could use as a sort of demo for people to convince them to upgrade to high-def. I don’t think the stunt casting of Hallyday was 100% successful, but I think it pays off well enough that even if “Vengeance” isn’t the greatest film Johnnie To has made so far, it contains enough material that does work that action fans owe themselves an evening with this one on the biggest screen possible.
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