Vengeance begins with a mob hit. A Chinese man arrives home with his two kids. They run in from a driving rain storm. The wife is preparing dinner. Literally seconds later, there’s a knock on the door. When the man approaches the door to see who it is through the door’s peep-hole, it will become the last thing he ever does. He’s shot in the face right through the door.
That is how Hong Kong film director Johnny To opens his 2009 Cannes Film Festival entry called Vengeance. This film is a co-production of To’s Hong Kong based Milkyway Image Production Company and a French outfit, ARP Selection. In addition to the Hong Kong cast, there’s one more. That would be the 64 year old French actor/singer named Johnny Hallyday aka “The Elvis Presley of France“.
The title tells all. This Frenchman requires revenge for his murdered son-in-law and two grandchildren, and his own daughter who suffered critical wounds in trying to defend herself and her children.
Johnny To is a master of the gun-play genre, but the script by Wai Ka Fai is flawed. It seems some what truncated. The writing between the five set pieces is in place to move the story forward and not much else. It fails in making it more interesting. Simply, there isn’t enough writing. Instead, there’s a lot of short cuts taken meaning that what should be logical turn of events based on what we are shown seems to happen far quicker than that, with To and Wai assuming you’ll be able to connect some of the dots.
For example – Francis Costello (Hallyday) has flown in from Paris to Hong Kong and then to Macau to identify the remains of his Chinese son-in-law and grandchildren, and to see his daughter in the intensive care unit of the hospital.
That seems to whiz by and before you can even think about it, he will meet the lead detective on the case played by Maggie Siu (above). She tells him that she feels his pain, and wants to capture these killers as badly as he does. And then we never see her again.
Costello has good fortune. Despite not knowing a soul in either Hong Kong or Macau, within in minutes of checking in to his Macau hotel, he’s hired 3 hitmen. This is the first of many shortcuts.
The second shortcut is how quickly this newly assembled team can find the Triad assassins.
The ‘good’ hitmen are the well known Hong Kong actors, and To regulars, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka Tung, and Lam Suet. They work for the Triad boss George Fung played by Simon Yam (below) who seems to play either a heroic cop, or a Triad boss in all of his films. The bad hitmen were not names I recognized.
Well, Costello not only hires them, but he is much more familiar with guns and violence than you might think a Parisien chef ought to be, (we’re not told why) so he becomes part of the hit team. But there’s a problem; Costello still has a bullet lodged in his brain. We’re not told whether it was a war wound, or he was involved in a crime. What we are told is that he suffers memory lapses. He even needs to look at their pictures to refresh his mind and memory.
That brings us to the existential question – Can you really claim vengeance if you can’t remember why you want it? To and Wai introduce this question but never really answer it. I guess they’re leaving it to each individual viewer to decide that for himself.
In the rather exciting set piece shoot outs, Johnny To’s skills are brought to the fore. While he doesn’t give you the slow-motion of the falling ejected bullet-casings as John Woo did so often, he does give us, the expected staple for this genre, lots of blood bursts.
I think the film is exciting to watch but is flawed and not up to the standards set in To’s earlier Triad gunmen movies like The Mission and The Exiled. Seemingly, and despite the shortcuts, the whole picture moves just too slowly, which means you get the visual treats, but the visceral impact is diminished.
Still, his work is always stylish, and exciting. His assassins might just be the modern versions of Eastwood’s laconic heroes from his Spaghetti westerns days. Strong, forceful, silent, and deadly. And to me, being compared with the works of Leone, is a very good comparison and a very good thing for Johnny To..