Johnny Hallyday is a massive French icon. He's been labelled as the 'French Elvis', and he's been making music for over half a Century. Outside of France, comparatively few people have even heard of him, let alone recognise him for what he's done. Having now retired from music, he has spent the last few years dabbling in movies, making the well-received L'homme du train (which has been fast-tracked for another unnecessary Hollywood for-those-who-can't-be-bothered-to-read-subtitles remake, starring Donald Sutherland) as well as the mistimed comedy-drama Crime Spree with Harvey Keitel and Gerard Depardieu. Even in his cameo parts, he appears to have perfected his mysterious old stranger persona, making him perfect for the lead role in 2009's Vengeance.
After his daughter and her husband and two young children are violently attacked, Costello, an aged French Chef with a dark past, travels to Hong Kong to find the assailants and avenge her. Once there he encounters three professional Chinese hitmen, whom he recruits on his mission. Along the way, through a sense of mutual professionalism and underlying respect, the quartet grow to become quite a disparate group of reluctant friends. Complications arise when they actually find out who hired the three murderers themselves, and when they discover the truth behind Costello's mysterious past, the deadly situation gathering momentum as it rollercoasters towards an expectedly bloody denouement.
The plot is remarkably straightforward and, despite the fact that there are a few twists along the way, it never really strays too far from its overtly predictable course. The essence to the film is one man's quest for vengeance - as you might have expected from the title - but what really sets this film apart from the others in its herniating sub-genre is the style of Direction. You see, this is a Johnny To film. Don't worry if you don't know the name: To himself hadn't even heard of Johnny Hallyday before the ageing French superstar was recommended to him, so he can't exactly criticise us for not having heard of him. But he is a notably stylish Chinese Director who has risen to fame over the last decade mostly thanks to an unofficial trilogy of gangster films (The Mission, Election, and this 'third part'). Many would say he's no John Woo, or even Ringo Lam, but - to be fair - both of those bigger-named Directors have had their fair share of turkeys, so it's easy to see how To's upcoming 'style' has garnered him with quite the following.
Vengeance may be a simple tale of revenge, but in To's hands the well-trodden narrative gets spun into a seemingly complex web involving eccentric gangster villains, unusually honourable professional hitmen, well-staged shootouts, lots of slow-mo blood-letting and a high enough body count to keep you guessing right to the end. His ideas may be thoroughly familiar, borrowing central concepts from such high profile films as Memento, the Bourne Identity and even Taken, but he strings the whole thing together with enough of his own personal, distinctive, panache to make you feel like this film has something fresh to offer.
That's not to say that To is a great Director. He may have the potential to be, but at the moment it's still just potential, and Vengeance is almost a work-in-progress along the way to, hopefully, better projects. You see, Vengeance may well be an enjoyable revenge thriller, but it is still a distinctly flawed movie. It gets off to a relatively good start, the shocking violence at the beginning setting the stage for the action to follow, and it holds together for quite a while, right through to the stylishly-shot recruitment scene where Costello follows the three professional hitmen into the subway to ask for their help. But then things fall apart. A stylishly shot but remarkably silly practice shooting montage (where the quartet blast an old bicycle repeatedly in slow-mo, somehow managing to propel it along with the impact of their bullets) is soon followed by a stylishly shot but remarkably incoherent standoff and ensuing prolonged shootout, the end result of which, whilst all looking very pretty, totally takes the viewer out of the picture. Not only is the central revelation, integral to the aforementioned shootout, not divulged until it is too late for us to care, but the scene only appears to go to show just how bad a shot all of the involved participants are, irrespective of the later twist. Six professional killers and a chef who knows how to reassemble a gun blindfolded (if you've seen Seagal's high-point, Under Siege, you know the type of chef we're really talking about) and they can't hit a damn thing!
The Director presents the shootout in a similar style to those favoured by his Japanese counterpart, the excellent Takeshi Kitano, in some of his best work, like Sonatine, wherein the opponents face each other front-on and just empty their guns at one another until one side is taken down. It shows the Japanese pride, devotion and commitment within this simple setup. These modern-day Samurai are prepared to die, and will do so standing tall and facing it head-on. But where Takeshi actually had people get shot and go down, To favours extending the action to the detriment of the plausibility. The scene just looks like a ludicrous excuse to have a slow-mo shootout in a forest, and whatever ideas the Director had about where he wanted to go with the damn thing (including the aforementioned plot twist that is hinted at here) only add it a dimension of utter confusion rather than elegant mystique.
Then, later down the line, we see a massive confrontation that involves the opponents on both sides rolling giant cubes of compressed paper refuse toward one another and using them as cover as they shoot at each other. I'm not kidding. Now, if you look at the scene closely, once you have stopped rolling around on the floor laughing, you will see the disappointing counterpoint of intention vs. end result. Johnny To is apparently famous for these kinds of topographic action-scene depictions, but this one just makes no sense. It feels like the Director had an idea in his head which just did not work when shot on film, and yet which he pushed through to the final cut because it represents the biggest set-piece in the movie.
Honestly, Vengeance is peppered with plot holes, inconsistencies, and contrivances - stuff that just does not make sense, even when it is later 'explained'. Amnesia is used as a massive gimmick: really, if you're so far gone that you don't even know what simple, basic words like 'revenge' mean, then why would you be speaking a foreign language effortlessly? How could you remember language and grammar rules if you can't even remember words? And even if you somehow remembered all that, what would a gun with a name on it and a couple of stickers with flags on them actually mean to you? Surely if you don't know what the word 'revenge' even means then you don't stand much hope of being able to figure out this sort of riddle. The amnesia conceit in this film is more of an annoying hindrance than an intriguing symbol for the futility of revenge. And even beyond that contrivance, characters generally behave in a totally illogical fashion mainly because the plot requires them to do so in order to get to the next scene. It's a bad collection of incomplete, and thus incoherent, ideas; misguided symbolism that is presented in such an over-the-top fashion that it not only totally ruins any chance of carrying over the supposedly clever subtext, but also destroys any potential suspension of disbelief.
Despite all of this, despite the fact that you will have to just laugh off some of the scenes rather than trying to make sense of them, the film is still enjoyable. I couldn't help wanting to see what happens next, and it helped no end that the ride to get there was undeniably stylish. The Director's choice of score also adding to the 'cool factor' of the proceedings: a guitar-dominated moody offering with Spaghetti-Western-undertones that is perfect for all the balletic violence and macho posturing. It's a silly movie, where people do silly things, this partly due to something being lost in translation (Hard Boiled was peppered with silly moments), and partly through the Director's inability to make his 'vision' a workable reality on-screen, but the end result is still undeniably flashy and entertaining.
Johnny Hallyday and his Chinese cohorts help elevate the movie beyond being just an exercise in style over substance, their performances prime examples of doing the absolute best with the material that is on offer. Hallyday seems perfect for this kind of role, his strange, aged, almost prosthetic look (he could give Mickey Rourke a run for his money in terms of plastic surgery) lending itself well to the part of the mysterious stranger with a shady past. And Johnny To regulars, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka Tung, Simon Yam and Lam Suet all do well, even in their non-native English (the film has a mix of Cantonese, French and English, but arguably English is the favoured of these languages), rounding out the colourful cast with some very distinctive performances. Wong has always been one of my favourite Chinese actors, from his early days in the likes of Hard Boiled, to his great performance in Infernal Affairs (the excellent Hong Kong thriller that was another victim to the woefully unnecessary Hollywood remake machine, which turned it into the solid but still inferior Scorcese Oscar-winner, The Departed), and here he shows that he still has the goods. Simon Yam has become somewhat stereotyped over the last decade or so, always making for a decent gangster villain, and here turning up the ham to 11 to give us quite an over-the-top, eccentric bad guy for the (anti-)heroes to rally against. It's a good cast, all working well together irrespective of the language barriers (I don't think the Director even understands French and English) and making the film yet more unusual.
Overall I'm sure that Johnny To fans knew what to expect walking into this film, and I'm sure they got it. It is probably standard fare for his Directorial style, and the inconsistencies and incoherence that I complain about is probably par for the course in his creations. Still, this one does stretch the lenience of the audience to absolute breaking point, and it will be very hard for anybody to take it seriously throughout, without at least scratching their head in perplexed amazement a few times. But if you can forgive the problems and take a more ethereal view of the production, almost feeling what the Director truly intended through his stylish direction and choice of shots rather than through plot logic and narrative cohesion, the end result can be quite rewarding and enjoyable. This may not be a great movie, and probably barely ranks above-average, but it is still perfectly watchable and entertainingly stylish. Vengeance is yet another Hong Kong gangster/revenge flick which, whilst not memorably good, is thankfully still far from bad.
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