With a near 50-feature filmography filled with its share of double-crossed gunslingers, wronged toughs, and shattered loyalties, director Johnnie To knows a thing or two about vengeance. To's latest bullet-riddled ballet follows a familiar trajectory for the Hong Kong filmmaker and his frequent collaborator Wai Ka Fai (who wrote the screenplay; Vengeance, which played the San Francisco International Film Festival 2010 and returns to the SFFS Screen at the Sundance Kabuki, is an elegant and masterful treatise on its titular subject that holds up to such previous triumphs as Exiled (2006) and The Mission (1999).
The film's set-up is a familiar one: a French ex-pat living in Hong Kong barely survives a brutal attack by unknown gunmen that leaves her Chinese husband and two small boys dead. Enter the woman's father, Costello (French rock icon Johnny Hallyday), who decides to take matters into his own hands and see out revenge. Costello employs the services of three Chinese hit men, Kwai (To regular Anthony Wong), Chu, and Fat Lok—who he happens upon in the hallway of a hotel just after they've completed a job for their boss, a Triad bigwig—to do the kind of digging the police seem routinely incapable of in these sorts of pictures.
But To, who has so often been rightfully praised as a master of genre, only has use for formulas if he can tweak them. It soon starts to become apparent to the audience as well as Costello's newfound allies that their employer, with his sharply tailored black trench and handiness with firearms, isn't exactly the Parisian restaurateur he claims to be. It also comes to light that our international band of brothers' quarry might be closer, and costlier, than any of them realize (one of the first lessons of a To film: Don't cross a triad boss). There's also the small issue of Costello's rapidly deteriorating memory, which adds a ticking clock to the film's latter half and raises a troublesome question, later voiced by Kwai: "What if the one seeking vengeance loses the memory of who they are avenging?"
Such philosophical asides are one of the many small joys of Vengeance, as well as something of a To trademark. This is a director, after all, who isn't afraid of pausing the hail of bullets exchanged between Costello's gang and their foes to include a shot of clouds passing in front of a full moon, or of complicating the "bad guys" further by giving them wives and small children of their own. Action, and violence in particular, is a means for To, and not an end, something lost on many of his imitators and admirers as well as the more-is-more aesthetic of many a recent Hollywood summer blockbuster.
Vengeance touches on many other To themes, as well—the stoic pleasures of male camaraderie; unlikely friendships among fellow assassins; and loyalty versus honor—which all impart heft and nuance to the film's spectacular gunplay scenes, of which the aforementioned moonlit shoot-out is but one (a penultimate shoot-out at a wind-swept dump takes a close second). The combined efforts of To, cinematographers Cheng Siu Keung and Hung Mo To, and action choreographer Chung Chi Li, transform hails of gunfire and sprays of blood into the stuff of a Pollock drip canvas or a physics-defying Cirque du Soleil act.
Such pyrotechnics would merely dazzle instead of awe were it not for the strong performances of the films leads. With his grizzled mien and reptilian eyes, Hallyday looks the part to perfection, and his Gallic provenance only further underscores Costello's stranger-in-a-strange-land predicament. Unlike Michael Caine's one-note turn as the titular geezer in another recent revenge-driven shoot-em-up, Harry Brown, Hallyday gives Costello room to breathe: He's not so hardboiled that he can't share a laugh with his newfound buddies over a pasta dinner whipped up from leftovers in the crime scene fridge. After all, who needs to be bilingual when there's bread to break, heat to pack, and enemies to off? When you're in To's rain-slicked neon jungle, you're family.
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