Foreign Objects travels the world of international cinema each week to look for films worth visiting. So renew your passport, get your shots, and brush up on the local age of legal consent, this week we’re heading to…
I’ve discussed my fondness for the revenge genre many times throughout the life of this column, and I don’t expect to stop doing so anytime soon. It’s a favorite story type for me on multiple levels from the visceral to the poetic, and I never seem to tire of the genre’s conventions… step one, someone is wronged… step two, that someone gets revenge. Nothing could be simpler right? Some of the best revenge films manage to mess with that formula in creative and startling ways (Old Boy, Memento), but originality isn’t always a necessity. Sometimes you just need a grieving, cat-eyed father who knows how to handle a gun and cook a mean plate of pasta. Welcome to Johnnie To’s Vengeance.
A rainy afternoon in Macau brings a trio of killers to a family’s front door. They gun down the entire family, including two young children, but leave the woman clinging to life. That’s Amateur Bad Guy Mistake #6, and when the woman’s father arrives from Paris she’s able to pass on some clues to help him locate the killers. Costello (aging French pop star Johnny Hallyday) quickly sets up shop and has the good fortune to cross paths with three affable hitmen (including Anthony Wong) who’ve just finished an assignment in the hotel where he’s staying. He earns their trust and hires them to help find the men responsible for the attack on his daughter’s family. Their quest brings them to Hong Kong and a smarmy, smiling mob boss named Fung (the smarmy, smiling Simon Yam). Cue the excessive gunplay, machismo, slow-motion shots, and a not-so-subtle story about honor between gunslingers…
Fans of To’s work will no doubt find much to like here as the director is still one of the most impressive shot-makers in Hong Kong. Every gunfight is a ballet of slow motion bullets and blood, and even the scenes absent of violent action have an artistry about them unmatched in most Western films. Costello and his new friends walk purposefully through his daughter’s house, silent and respectful of the violence that occurred there, and visualize the attack as it happened. It’s a beautifully done mix of present and past and gives a real sense of the emotion behind the assault. Another scene finds the men target shooting in a junkyard with a bicycle taking the brunt of their bullets… bullets that proceed to roll the bike for several hundred feet. Gunfights in a park, a stairwell, and a paper-strewn field are also scenes of beauty.
As beautiful as the movie looks though it’s bogged down to the level of mediocre by two factors. The first and foremost problem is summed up in two words… frog crooner. (That’s Johnny Hallyday for you mono-linguists out there.) The man is an undeniable pop genius (as evidenced in this Youtube clip), but as an actor he has less personality and presence than a half-eaten loaf of French bread. He mumbles his way through dialogue broken up with odd intonation and pauses while he remembers lines (or reads them off cue cards). It could be his discomfort with the English language, but Wong, Ha Tung Lam, and Suet Lam are in the same boat and all manage far better. He smiles during a scene with some children, but that laugh aside his expression never changes throughout the movie.
The second thing holding the film back is that, as is often the case with Hong Kong action flicks, Vengeance is a near perfect example of cool style trumping logical substance. One of the more offensively ridiculous bits starts with one of the visually mesmerizing ones mentioned above. After showcasing some amazing sharpshooting with the bike the quartet proceeds to miss almost everything they shoot at for the rest of the movie… including one fight where the enemy is standing still! After the daughter tells Costello that she shot one of the assassin’s ears off Costello and crew head to Hong Kong with that as their only lead… first place they stop they see a fisherman with a bandaged ear. So obviously that’s their man. Then there’s the gunfight where our heroes toss experience and a smart defense to the wind and instead intentionally maneuver their way right into the exposed middle of the bad guys. Yeah, good luck with that.
Is Vengeance one of To’s better films? No. Is it worth watching? Most probably. It’s definitely one of his lighter and simpler movies in the sense that the two sides are clearly delineated from the beginning. There are no twists, turns, or Triad power plays here. Instead these are men bound by their calling and their honor to do the right thing and they do it. Period. A revelation regarding Costello’s memory loss seems poised to inject more drama into the movie but it’s downgraded to a simple gimmick by the end. Vengeance is disposable Hong Kong action to be sure, but thanks to Johnny To’s sense of style it’s also pretty to look at.
Vengeance is currently available on import DVD and Blu-ray.
The Upside: Stylish action and well-crafted scenes; interesting move bringing on a trio of hitmen
The Downside: French fries have more personality than Hallyday; Costello and crew can keep a bicycle rolling for several minutes by shooting it but can’t hit a goddamn thing during actual gunfights; final stand-off is an exercise in both futility and stupidity