Vengeance (2009) / Thriller-Action
MPAA Rated: Not rated, but would be R for strong violence, some nudity and a scene of sexuality
Running time: 108 min.
Cast: Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Gordon Lam, Simon Yam, Sylvie Testud
Director: Johnnie To
Screenplay: Wai Ka-Fai
French rock-and-roller and actor Johnny Hallyday (The Pink Panther 2, Man on the Train) stars as a aging chef and restaurateur, and one time assassin, Costello (perhaps an homage to the main character of Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Samourai), who travels to Macao in order to avenge the murder of his son-in-law and two grandchildren in a hit placed on them that also sees Irene (Testud, The Chateau), his surviving daughter. near her own death in the hospital. She cannot speak, but she makes it clear to her father that she wishes for him to avenge her and her gunned down family. As he's a stranger in a strange (to him) land, he slyly enlists the help of some nearby professional hitmen to help him track down the culprits so that he can exact some righteous vengeance.
Hong Kong action-thriller maestro Johnnie To (Running Out of Time 2, Love On a Diet) directs this piece to be more somber than pulse-pounding, and more speculative than a thrill ride. When the killing isn't involved, the pacing and stark cinematography are akin to an old Hollywood film noir detective story. This may frustrate some viewers looking for all-out action, but the quiet speaks volumes on the morose aspects of what's going on in the story, as if to suggest that the life of a killer is one filled with loneliness and sadness. The only family an assassin truly has is the company of his fellow henchmen.
When the action does emerge, To does tend to go for over-the-top Spaghetti Western theatrics, though one can easily see the entire story as an "urban Western" at its core. Lots of Peckinpah-ish slow motion deaths hearken to films like The Wild Bunch in particular. Hallyday gives his best Charles Bronson imitation in this very Death Wish-like story of a man protecting the innocents by pulling the weeds from society that the law doesn't seem to know how to. On the downside, the merging of the different actors and languages does produce some stiffness in the execution, particularly obvious when the characters talk to each other in English, to the point where one wonders if some of the dialogue wasn't recited phonetically.
Though simplistic in plot, scripted by frequent To collaborator Wai Ka-Fai (Help!!!, Fulltime Killer), scenes often make little sense in the grand scheme of things, which is typical of To's style-over-substance delivery, and the reason he's garnered more of an international audience than most HK directors. Luckily, that style isn't unwelcome, particularly during the later scenes that would cause a more realistic approach to crumble, such as standoff involving men hiding behind rolling bales of paper, or a chase and shootout where one of the main characters suffers a bout of amnesia, Memento-style, and having to kill without the passion to do so. It's these odd touches that sets the film apart from the traditional revenge films from which this draws inspiration. It is in this that we find out that vengeance so often is done out of obligation or monetary gain rather than out of intense passion -- it takes cold calculation and some ingenuity to properly serve up that proverbial cold dish.
©2010 Vince Leo