You always know you are in for a familiar viewing experience when the director's name appears above the title. It is a stamp that cries out to fans of previous material and does so in a manner that can only intimate the continuance of a given style. True, there have been the occasional uses of this tool whereby a director has chosen to deviate from his tried and tested cinematic templates. In these scenarios, with a suitably grandiose name emblazoned, this tagline can help find, otherwise troublesome films to categorise or sell, a much needed audience. But more often than not it is the case that the name has become synonymous with a chosen genre or attempted style and in the case of Vengeance, I would say the poster boys have certainly missed a trick. The full title should definitely have read Johnnie To's Vengeance, as this is the only suitable way to describe this vision of hitmen and revenge.
Finishing up his loosely tied together trilogy of killers for hire, in which this film was preceded by The Mission (1999) and Exiled (2006), Vengeance is a very linear story at heart. The very title should tell you all you need to know about what the motivations of the central character are and what sort of experience you are in for. Like so many cinematic tales of “an eye for an eye” down the years, everything pivots around a straightforward premise, that of revenge. Bells and whistles can be added to this tenet and there have been many masterpieces built around the striking image of a figure driven by a singular bloody purpose of retribution. Other than pathos, pain and nihilism there is usually little in the way of complex emotion to be wrung from the scripts or fresh ground to be trodden by these tales of woe. In this respect, To's opening gambits aren't likely to sway you from your growing fears of linearity.
Set initially in Macau, but soon switching location to Hong Kong, Vengeance is the story of Francis Costello (played by Johnny Hallyday, a singer/actor who's apparently known as the French Elvis to some in his native country), a man seeking answers and ultimately blood. Costello's daughter, along with her family, has been gunned down in particularly brutal fashion, attacked in their home. Her children and husband lie dead whilst she is shown to have miraculously survived, but in a critical condition and holding onto a brittle grasp of life. From her hospital bed Costello manages to run her finger over a newspaper in order to gain a few scraps of information regarding the men who carried out this horrifying attack. As such the ball is set rolling nicely for your standard tale of visceral revenge, and To throws us straight into the mix, with the volley of gunfire that rips through the family puncturing the silence of the opening moments. By hurling doors shattered by gunfire and more than a little of the old red stuff into our faces so early on there was always likely to be the very real danger that the need to establish characters after this initial onslaught would fall down as something of an anti climax.
None can question the impact of these early scenes, but with pacing a very real issue, To manages to pull back from the uncompromising violence in order to introduce us to the main players in this piece, without losing momentum. Falling closer to Election rather than Exiled in terms of its plot progression, the emphasis is firmly placed on a slightly slower style with which to draw out the intricacies of the characters. Far from this being a one man show, this has all the hallmarks of a classic To ensemble piece, with regulars Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, Lam Ka Tung and Lam Suet all appearing. In fact, in the case of Wong, it's arguable that his role is more key to the action than that of Hallyday. Wong, Tung and Suet act as three hitmen (Kwai, Chu and Fat Lok respectively) working for Simon Yam's evil Mr Big, George Fung. All roles are textbook To and as usual Wong gives the standout performance with his inimitably laconic laid back mannerisms. Suet does his turn as the rotund, slightly slower gun for hire and through his eating habits and the way in which he is awoken by the others throwing peanuts at him we are given a nice little nod towards the comic side of their relationship.
It may seem run-of-the-mill, but fans of To's work (which I certainly consider myself) will point to the fact that a tried and tested formula doesn't always need altering. There are many ways in which a slight fresh twist can be worked into a cinematic blueprint to great effect. It is hard to argue that the Infernal Affairs films are strikingly different from one another, or that Goodfellas and Casino cover wildly different grounds, but they remain much admired and rightly so. If anything, it is To's attempts to add something more individual into this routine affair that could be said to misfire somewhat. Hallyday holds down the persona of the enigmatic loner well enough, but when we hear this man, who handles a gun like a member of the SAS, say in a humble manner that he is just a chef, even the most ardent To aficionado would be forgiven for silently thinking “Christ, this isn't going to turn into Under Siege is it?” Couple this with Costello's apparent amnesia and his subsequent need to write on polaroids with big marker pens and suddenly you're wondering if this is going to cover not simply well trodden ground, but ground that certainly isn't owned by To.
Thankfully the sneaking suspicions of our favourite Eastern crime director, having fallen asleep watching Sky Movies and awoken thinking he'd come up with a new idea that miraculously came to him in his state of slumber, are soon dispelled as these vagaries are put on the back burner while we get back to good old fashioned stylised gunplay. With the score reminiscent of Exiled with its twanging guitars signalling tense stand offs and heroic posturing, the atmosphere and cinematography play a greater part than the dialogue, and with a script in Cantonese, English and French, considering To doesn't speak two of the aforementioned languages, it is just as well for his sake. In place of words, Wong merely nods to his associates, all three of them seeming to have a deep understanding of their roles in any scenario. It is this character interplay that makes Vengeance greater than the sum of its parts. Usually a revenge story hinges on the silence and brooding of the protagonist, emptiness filling the void as a form of expression, signalling the rise of tension and the waiting game that is necessary in such a bloody quest. Here To takes this element and pushes that solely on Hallyday's shoulders, but by giving him amnesia, it allows the three hitmen to come to the fore as his protectors. To doesn't fall into the trap of portraying them as kind hearted crooks, rather favouring introducing them to us with a cold clinical slaying of a couple who have wronged their employer simply through infidelity. Instead he focuses on their camaraderie and their code of conduct. It is easy to see why Alain Delon was initially touted for the Hallyday role and why the central character is named Costello, To is clearly a fan of Le Samourai and the mystique of the professional killer.
This has all the hallmarks of another belting Johnnie To Hong Kong gangster film. Yes it is formulaic in many aspects, with characters bonding over food, the insane Boss played with ever increasing delight by Simon Yam, Anthony Wong in shades, Lam Suet being the comic turn and highly stylised gunfights. However, that is exactly what fans such as myself want from To. Intricate gunplay, sharp suits, slow motion, revenge, a wheelbarrow of squibs and a healthy dash of claret. Throw in doomed acts of heroism that defy rational logic and you've got a fitting third in To's trilogy of tales about professional killers.
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