Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Movie Review: Vengeance

Vengeance *** ½
Directed By:
Johnnie To.
Written By: Wai Ka Fai
Starring: Johnny Hallyday (Costello), Sylvie Testud (Irene Thompson), Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (Kwai), Ka Tung Lam (Chu), Suet Lam (Lok), Simon Yam (George Fung), Siu-Fai Cheung (Wolf), Felix Wong (Python), Ting Yip Ng (Crow), Maggie Siu (Inspector Wong), Vincent Sze (Mr. Thompson).

Johnnie To is among the most prolific directors working anywhere in the world right now. In the past decade alone, he has directed 23 films. While I would hardly call myself an expert on his films – having only seen a handful - I will say that To is among the best action movie directors in the world right now. While many of his compatriots from Hong Kong have fled and gone to Hollywood to make their films, To has stayed put in Hong Kong, and carried the torch, at times seemingly by himself. His films mark a refreshing departure from the trend in Hollywood action filmmaking towards making everything bigger, louder and faster – and the tendency to edit action sequences so fast that the audience becomes disoriented. In To’s films, there are always multiple action set pieces, and all of them are expertly crafted. He stages gun battles with more skill than anyone since the early days of John Woo. As an action filmmaker, he is second to no one in the world right now.

His new film Vengeance may not quite be the masterwork that his film Election, Election II, Exiled, Breaking News or even Mad Detective were, but it is still one of the most entertaining action movies in recent years. It stars the “French Elvis”, Johnny Hallyday as an aging man who comes to Hong Kong to avenge the murder of his grandkids and son in law, during an attack that also left his daughter barely clinging to life. For unknown reasons, he has not been close to his daughter in recent years, and had in fact never even met his grandkids. But, his family is still important to him, and he needs to find out what happened and why – and make whoever is responsible for it pay.

The added wrinkle in the movie is that Hallyday is losing his memory. He has to keeps notes of everything, or he forgets. When he gets a hold of the crime scene photos, he writes on each one a single word – Vengeance. When he meets a team of hit man – Kwai (Anthony Wong), Chu (Ka Tung Lam) and Lok (Suet Lam), and hires them to help find who killed his family, he takes Polaroids of them and writes their name, and the fact that they are his friend, on them. He tells these hit men that he is a chef in Paris, and owns a nice restaurant. He offers them a lot of money, and even says that he will give them his restaurant if they help him. The trio agree, thinking they’ve met an easy mark in this old French man, but quickly they realize that he is not who he appears to be. His expertise with guns makes it apparent that while he maybe a chef now, at some point, he may have done exactly what they do now. Once they start investigating, the trail quickly leads them to Fung (Simon Yam), a flamboyant gangster, who has employed the hit men in the past. The guilt associated with the fact that the three hit men could have easily had gotten the call to kill Hallyday’s family (and would have accepted it), makes them more loyal to him than they might otherwise had been. They genuinely like the guy, and feel sorry for his loss.

In many ways, Vengeance is a typical revenge drama and action movie. The storyline is fairly straight forward, and it’s not too long before the three hit men and Hallyday go out and start mowing down bad guys. The action sequences are certainly the highlight of the movie. A gun battle that erupts after a nighttime family picnic, the battle in a junkyard, with huge square of waste (think of what Wall-E produced, and just increase the size) as shields, and particularly the final showdown, where Hallyday, his memory pretty much gone, goes after Fung and his henchmen by himself in the streets of Hong Kong are all brilliant action set pieces, meticulously crafted and executed by To. This is how shootouts in the movies are supposed to be done.

But the movie is more than just a well executed action movie. Hallyday is a genuinely gifted actor (see his work in Patrice Leconte’s Man on the Train for example), and he makes his character into a sympathetic man, and a sort of tragic figure. He may end up getting his vengeance, but if he has forgotten why he wanted it in the first place, will it really matter? The great Anthony Wong (who Western audiences probably, unfortunately, know him best for his role in The Mummy 3 last year, but has done great work in Hong Kong for years, particularly in the Infernal Affairs trilogy, where he originated the role played by Martin Sheen in The Departed) is very effective as the leader of the hit men Hallyday hires. And Simon Yam, a favorite of To’s, is wonderful as the over the top gangster. He is not just a mustache twirling mad man, but something for more insidious – a businessman with no conscience.

So while the plot of the movie is merely incidental and by the numbers, the execution of the movie is anything but. Vengeance may not be the best film of To’s long career, but it puts to shame almost any American action movie you will see this year. This is a very entertaining film, with some dark undertones that elevate beyond the realm of the revenge thriller.

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