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Hong Kong’s crime cinema God Johnnie To goes International in “Vengeance”, a film that is at once different and yet familiar for the director. The film stars French rocker Johnny Hallyday as Costello, a French chef who journeys to Macau after a trio of Chinese hitmen fulfill a contract on the family of Costello’s daughter (Sylvie Testud). The daughter miraculously survives, but her husband and two children are not so fortunate. From her hospital bed, the daughter demands that her father avenge her, and Costello, whose life as a chef was a second act and not a first, agrees. He is not a stranger to guns and death, and indeed it is that former, long-buried life that is currently robbing him of his memory, which makes his current mission all the more urgent.
Costello sets out to locate the killers, which proves difficult. Fortunately, serendipity smiles upon our French chef and he comes into contact with another trio of Chinese hitmen, played by Johnnie To regulars Anthony Wong and Suet Lam, with “Ip Man’s” Ka Tung Lam finishing off the triumvirate. The “good” hitmen agree to Costello’s job (they’re expensive, but the promise of cash and a French restaurant is more than enough), and their search takes them to Hong Kong, where bloody shootouts and much male bonding ensue. Things get more complicated when motives are revealed and various, formerly hidden factions come into play, forcing loyalties into question and bringing up the true value of a man’s word.
If you are a To fan, and I count myself as one, “Vengeance” is another hit in a long line of hits. Everything fans of the director have come to expect from his crime films is accounted for. The men and their work take center stage, with To mainstays like the always suave Anthony Wong and the always amusing Suet Lam doing their parts with perfect precision. Simon Yam once again puts in another fine performance as a maniacal and completely oft-killer crime boss that our merry hitmen hire out to on occasion. It’s all build-up to one of those inescapable confrontations for these men of violence that you’ve seen before, though no less effective. Though the film’s bloody conclusions are inevitable, To does seem to be throwing a bone to Western viewers by providing an upbeat coda.
Perhaps the worst thing you can say about “Vengeance” is that it doesn’t fully commit. Keeping the film familiar, yet different by introducing a Western element allows the director to move into the International scene while still holding back. From a cold and calculating standpoint this makes perfect sense, and To is smart to have done it. The problem, of course, is that by not committing either way – go the whole Western route or stay in the East – To must force a melding of the two. The result is sometimes awkwardness that can’t be avoided. It’s not really the language that stands in the way of a perfect meshing (English is used about 90% of the time), but there is a noticeable stilted quality, especially during the film’s many male bonding scenes, that do not exist in his all-Chinese works.
Fortunately that’s a minor quibble, and doesn’t really hold the film back enough that it becomes a running issue. In fact, you could probably even explain away the awkwardness because, well, there are two cultures clashing in “Vengeance”, and even if the men exist in the same world where violent men with guns ply their trade, it’s still from two vastly different neighborhoods. There should be some initial awkwardness as the two sides try to feel each other out, something To portrays believably in the film. Those moments eventually fade when the commonality between them is revealed. Plus, a nice, home-cooked meal and some impromptu junkyard shooting practice don’t hurt, either.
As a Western introduction to Johnnie To, “Vengeance” shows off the elements that made the man’s Hong Kong work must-sees and helped create his legion of fans. It’s nowhere his best film, which is saying something because it’s a pretty damn good movie by itself. The action is at once brutal and operatic, including a shootout that takes place literally by moonlight and one in the pouring rain that moves vertically as well as horizontally. Plumes of bloody red clouds dot the film, giving it a surreal quality that makes the violence onscreen all the more artistic. As he’s wont to do, To orchestrates the shootouts for maximum style and effect, even if they do tend to eschew real world logic at times. Mind you, not that you’ll mind too much, especially when they look this good onscreen. Even when he’s straddling the fence, To is still a master at the genre.
If you’re new to the works of Johnnie To and found “Vengeance” to your liking, I would recommend going back and discovering his Hong Kong film catalog. To has worked regularly and often in Hong Kong cinema, and his films range from silly romantic comedies to bloody shoot’em ups like “Vengeance”. His brutal and gritty “Election” films still ranks as some of the best Triad films to date, and are definite must-sees. But don’t just wallow in To’s dark take on Hong Kong crime, also check out some of his more light-hearted fare, like the satisfying caper “Running out of Time” series, or his more esoteric outputs like “Throw Down” and “Running on Karma”. But if you especially liked “Vengeance”, you’ll love “The Mission” and its pseudo sequel, “Exiled”.
Johnnie To (director) / Ka-Fai Wai (screenplay)
CAST: Johnny Hallyday … Costello
Sylvie Testud … Irene Thompson
Anthony Wong Chau-Sang … Kwai
Ka Tung Lam … Chu
Suet Lam … Fat Lok
Simon Yam … George Fung
Siu-Fai Cheung … Wolf
Felix Wong … Python
Ting Yip Ng … Crow
Maggie Siu … Inspector Wong