Director: Johnny To
Cast: Johnny Hallyday, Sylvie Testub, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka Tung, Lam Suet, Simon Yam, Cheung Siu Fai, Felix Wong, Michelle Ye, Maggie Siu, Vincent Sze
RunTime: 1 hr 48 mins
Released By: Shaw
Rating: M18 (Violence)
Official Website: http://www.vengeance-lefilm.com/_en/vengeance.html
Opening Day: 5 November 2009
A father comes to Hong Kong to avenge his daughter, whose family was murdered. Officially, he’s a French chef. Twenty years ago, he was a killer.
How do you tell a Johnnie To assassin apart from other assassins? For one, the Johnnie To assassin is probably a laconic individual who speaks with great brevity. He is also likely to enjoy hanging out over food with three or four buddies. And while on the job, they have a mutual respect for their fellow professionals, even if they are fighting on opposite sides. Perhaps most obvious of all, they also like to pose, and then pose some more.
"Vengeance" is a tale of four assassins not unlike Johnnie To’s earlier "The Mission" and "Exiled". Just like the earlier films populated by the trademark To assassin, the trio of hitmen embody the characteristics of what has made To’s crime thrillers such unique gems. In "Vengeance", they are Kwai (Anthony Wong), Chu (Gordon Lam) and Fay Lok (Lam Suet), recruited by a French former- hitman-turned-chef Costello (Johnny Hallyday) to avenge the brutal murder of his son-in-law and two grandchildren.
Their targets are another group of three hitmen (played by Felix Wong, Eddie Cheung and Ng Ting-Yip). As an example of the kind of professional courtesy only assassins in Johnnie To’s world extend to one another, Kwai, Chu and Fay Lok first confront their rivals at a picnic area in the woods. They wait while their foes finish a barbecue with family before whipping out their weapons for a shootout under the moonlight.
This 'bullet ballet' is stylishly shot- the moon playing hide and seek behind the clouds while the killers shoot, pause, shoot, pause in slo-mo, complete with Cheung Siu-Keung’s elegant cinematography and David Richardson’s kinetic editing, both of them regulars of director Johnnie To. So too are the ensemble cast of Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam, Lam Suet and Simon Yam, as well as "Vengeance’s" screenwriter Wai Kar-Fai- all regulars of To’s Milkyway stable.
Their familiarity brings an assuredness to their collaborations with To, especially when it comes to pulling off To’s penchant for offbeat humour. It is these deft touches- like how Lam Suet’s Fay Lok (a tongue-in-cheek reference to his considerable girth) takes the trouble to strike a pose for Costello who insists of taking a picture of Kwai, Chu and Fay Lok- that make To’s band of assassins more affable. Just as delightful is the camaraderie among the trio, which To deftly conveys with their tacit synching of actions with one another.
But "Vengeance" also shares the same fault with "The Mission" or "Exiled", lacking much substance by way of a story. Indeed, all three films can be accused of placing its narrative secondary to its style. Though the earlier two films may have gotten away with it by To’s artistic flourishes, "Vengeance" is less successful due to its more protracted length. Against better judgment, To takes his time to bring "Vengeance" to its climax, so much so that the last third of the film loses steam.
Disappointing too is iconic French singer-actor Johnny Hallyday in the leading role. While his deeply etched face does look the part of a weary stranger adrift in a foreign land, Hallyday’s stilted performance stands in stark contrast to the eloquence of his more able co-stars. Because Hallyday’s character takes up most of the last third of the film, this is also ultimately the weakest part of the film.
Though flawed, "Vengeance" nonetheless does boast of To’s signature visual style, most evident within his graceful gunfight choreography. Most of it probably doesn’t make good sense when you think about it, but so does the typical characteristics of a To assassin. It does however look great onscreen, and that’s what "Vengeance" really is- vintage To shoot-em-up that fans of the auteur will still find satisfying.
("Vengeance" packs all the right ingredients for a Johnnie To ‘killer’ film, but its underdeveloped script and underwhelming lead make it fall short of a classic)
Review by Gabriel Chong