This film has been selected in the Cannes Film Festival.
I’ve often said that Hong Kong Director Johnnie To is the epitome of cool and calculating style. His latest film also proves that he is one versatile director seeing as how he is able to direct a film that uses three languages such as French, English and Mandarin; it wouldn’t be too impressive but To doesn’t speak a word of English or French. “VENGEANCE” (2009) is a film that has high expectations going for it in Asia and the film has been selected in the Cannes Film Festival. The film may well be a fitting conclusion to To’s trilogy of movies about hitmen such as “The Mission” and “Exiled”, so if you notice several similarities to style and tone to the other two films, it may well be intentional. “Vengeance” also includes French actor Johnny Hallyday (who is a Pop legend in France dubbed the “Elvis Presley of France“) who took over the role that Alain Delon left vacant.
Francis Costello (Johnny Hallyday) is a French chef who owns his own restaurant who was also a former assassin. He arrives in Macau after his daughter was shot and left barely clinging to an inch of her life. Her family was brutally murdered in their own home, and she asks her father to ‘avenge her’. A stranger in Macau, Francis has nowhere to turn, but one evening, he runs across three hitmen and decides to enlist their aid. The three professional killers Kwai (Anthony Wong, Untold Story), Chu (Gordon Lam) and Fat Lok (Lam Suet) agree to the job not knowing that their own boss in the triad, George Fung (Simon Yam) is the one who had ordered the hit on Costello’s family. Time is on short supply though as Costello is slowly losing his memory…will the three complete the job before all else is forgotten and when the reason for revenge is forgotten?
The film is linear in its storytelling and honestly, its premise is very simple. The movie follows familiar themes such as revenge, similar situations, and the faces are familiar to the those used to the movies directed by To. “Vengeance” even follows the same basic formulas such as camaraderie through the enjoyment of cuisine, black humor, very cool posturing, ‘brotherhood’ among killers and the stylized blood sprays. These are all Johnnie To signatures, and he does do these simple devices really well. What is new to the film is the French guy who seeks vengeance and the three hitmen go from his employees to his protectors. The film also touches on several existential themes but unfortunately it doesn’t really brought to full exposition. The screenplay by Wai Ka Fai follows the mood and devices established in “Exiled” and “The Mission”, he does lose its focus a little, as some scenes felt like it was just ‘going along’ and the script lacked the feeling of exigency in Johnnie To’s recent movies.
What I liked about the movie is while it does have familiar devices, it does manage to set up the confrontations quite well. Also I liked the fact that Hallyday’s character is about to lose his memory because of a bullet lodged in his brain. The taking of polaroids to remember the faces is a nice touch, as they question whether revenge should still be taken when the motivation is forgotten. I liked the look of Hallyday as the older assassin, he was convincing as Francis Costello that I immediately made a connection to his motivations. Costello was a former hitman so he easily connects with Kwai’s band of killers and the film manages to let the characters be a little more philosophical. These characters have their own sense of duty and a feeling of commitment to finish what they had started which is the characteristic that makes me real good in the execution of a job. Their motivations are simple but they simply take their job very seriously.
True, the film just uses the devices to take the characters from one situation to the other but boy, the set ups are just so cool. Some movies uses the action to delay a film’s resolution; well, To uses the action to make the story as they ooze off the screen. The director shows his mastery in executing the gun fights; it isn’t so much as they are violent but the manner they are set up. The gun fight in the barbeque park just exuded intensity and a sense of honor between the hitmen that it was handled with suspense. The gun fights are full of cool posing and beautiful camera work that makes use of the widescreen frame to the maximum. Slow motion is the signature of Hong Kong action dramas and To uses them with a method that makes the shots beautiful and intense. We see the spraying blood, falling leaves, shadows amid the moonlight and the wind-blown newspaper in a gun fight.
Much like any Johnnie To film, women play a significant part in his films albeit a little underused. They are not minor devices but they play pivotal short roles to give the story more substance. Maggie Shiu is a police detective that only shows in the first act, Michelle Ye makes an appearance as Kwai’s lover while Farini Chang as Fung’s lover. Their roles are vital to the film’s set ups and script but it Ye deserves to be praised for her vital part in the film’s last act.
I would score “Vengeance” more as a success than a failure despite its flaws with redundancy. The visuals are excellent and the performances are real good. To has toned down the Hong Kong action style to better fit the Western movie-going public. True, To has better films under his belt, but the sense of restraint and the film’s mood and tone just exudes pure intensity while looking real cool. Yes, I say I liked “Vengeance”; it is a welcome return to Hong Kong action crime dramas.
Highly Recommended! [4 stars]