a french chef goes to macau to avenge the death of his daughter’s family. that’s the premise of johnnie to’s latest actionoir, a hong kong/france co-production(the film is mostly in english). such premise has served hundreds and thousands of hong kong actioners and d-2-v action features. hell, luc besson has probably produced ten movies based on that premise alone. but of course, since it’s directed by johnnie to(fulltime killer, running out of time, election 1 & 2), written by wai kar fai and that milky way logo in the beginning, you know vengeance is not going to be your run of the mill lone hero vigilante action flick.
oh there are twists and turns alright. little ones. ones that make you go “ooh that’s gonna be interesting” rather than the shyamalanian types reveals. ones that you won’t exactly be surprised by but admires and have you wondering where the movie is going to go next.
the first act, the most interesting part of the movie, has costello, (played by “french elvis” johnny hallyday as a slimmer harvey kietel, a part originally meant for alain delon) navigating the vegas of asia trying to track down the killers. it is by coincidence that he meets a trio of hit men, whom he hires to help him find the killers. he pays them with money and his watch, and his restaurant in france. it is hinted at that he has a memory problem. so he takes polaroids and writes things down a la momento.
vengeance, for the most part, lives up to what one would expect in a johnnie to film. there are cool body movements, slow-mos, color schemes, editing, framing, and cinematography. stillness is just as important as action(except his hitmen don’t chat about pop culture or foot massages). unlike his 80s contemporaries, he’s not much interested in frantic bullet ballets/action scenes(every time someone gets shot in the movie, a red splatter fills most of the screen instead of blood spurting). he’s much more influenced by french new wave(there are numerous references to le samourai) and the golden age of hollywood(70s). as with most of his movies 90s and onward, it involves professionals who know what they are doing and are taking their time doing what they need to do. there’s a set piece in the second act that actually improves upon the anticlimatic airport scene in michael mann’s heat. it works better here because…well it’s in the middle of the movie, not the climax. i’m sure there are other reasons, but that’s what the comment box below is for.
speaking of this sequence, it’s just as dark as the ones in the final act of the expendables but why does it work here? for one thing, johnnie to believes in long takes. as dark as it is, you can still pretty much tell who’s doing what to whom at any given time. a lot of this sequence is in slow motion, with leaves falling no less. but more importantly, they don’t cut every 5 seconds. in fact, there are no bourne type shaky cam or bay cutting throughout the whole movie. even when they go to costello’s daughter’s house and try to piece together what happened, it’s like csi without the swishes. or maybe i’m just a reverse racist.
another sequence has three characters surrounded a la the rock in an ambush, yet it involves pails of recycled paper as elegant and operatic as anything in any of those house of crouching heroes with tigers and dragons. but since they use guns instead of blades and the setting is contemporary rather than historical period, oscar won’t be knocking on the door any time soon. i also love the hatted hero searching for his partners in the asian vegas filled with umbrellas.
vengeance is through and through a hong kong movie, and that comes with all its good and bad. you will no doubt be reminded of dozens of other movies(memento, the rock, ronin, the long kiss goodnight, and retrospectively, inception to name a few). they actually find some very creative and exciting touches on the age old themes of brotherhood, royalty and camaraderie(meals are crucial in his movies). as much as i like the movie, i could do without the heavy handed message scene of costello praying in the water and seeing the dead people. the script could have done more to incorporate costello’s memory loss instead of merely using it as a plot device for a couple of scenes. there’s also the cheap comic relief fat guy who loves food. as the movie goes on, it seems to get more and more routine. tsui hark’s time and tide contains far more inventive action scenes, which the apartment getaway scene reminds me of. as it is, vengeance is a good enough introduction to this latter period of johnnie to. for me, it doesn’t quite match the genius of the mission, but as that film is not available in the u.s., it’s still better than most of its kinds out there, but only pretty good among to’s oeuvre. at least his first western film doesn’t star jean claude van damme.
vengeance is currently available on netflix stream.
3.5/5 freedom fries