After coming home with his kids, a man is greeted at the door with a bullet to the eye. The entire family is massacred, though the wife survives. The wife's father, a French chef named Frank Costello, heads to Macau to meet with his daughter, who tells Frank what happened. Frank then enlists the aid of three hitmen to get revenge on the group who massacred his family. It soon becomes apparent, however, that there's more to Frank's past that what he's let on.
When you think of big-name Hong Kong directors, you almost always think of guys like John Woo, Ang Lee or Ann Hui. Then there's Johnnie To, who probably no one on this side of the pond has ever heard of. I certainly had never heard of the guy, but after seeing VENGEANCE, I'm wondering why I hadn't heard of the guy sooner.
Now I know that it's difficult to separate revenge movies from one another once you've seen a few of them, but VENGEANCE tweaks things a bit to try and separate itself from the rest of the pack, all of which involved casting French singer/actor Johnny Hallyday as Frank. A relative unknown to North American audiences, but a huge icon elsewhere, Hallyday looks, well, old. Old enough that you'd believe that the guy's been around the block enough times, but also when he takes pictures of his hired hitmen to remember them, you believe it. Seriously, another difference involves Frank having a degenerative memory thanks to a bullet lodged in his head (if that wasn't a hint about his past, I don't know what is), which comes into play in the film's finale quite nicely.
Staying with Johnny for a sec, the guy's grizzled features oozed cool but also exhibited a sordid past he'd rather soon leave behind, all of which only served to further the character. If that wasn't enough, the body language the man exhibits sold me as being grief-stricken. As for the group of hitmen Frank hires, the camaraderie between the three is another welcome. I mean, why have hitmen portrayed as soulless killers all the time? Anthony Wong Chau-Sang as the leader of the hitmen, Kwai, gives the character a quiet intelligence. Lam Ka-tung's Chu is the more emotional of the bunch, while Lam Suet as Fat Lok lightens things up with a bit of comic relief, but not so much as to cheapen the act.
Of course, the standout for many Asian films is the way that they're shot, and To brings the goods. The goods, of course, mostly involve gunplay. Ever see a shootout in the dark, where the only light involves the moon in a cloud-covered sky? Start off with some slow-building tension as the two parties meet and wait for the innocent bystanders to depart, throw in your classic catalyst to start things off (a soup bowl hitting the fire, in this case), leaves falling from the trees as the bullets fly, and top it all off with some slow-motion movement. Need a tissue?
Any blanks in this ballet of bullets? None that I could find, really. You could look at Frank's damaged memory as a sort of gimme for sympathy or convenient plot device, but that's it. I know some critics have said that VENGEANCE is more of the same from To, but seeing as I've never seen a Johnnie To film prior to this, I can't say the same thing. Instead, I'll say that this is probably closer to HARD BOILED than anything I've recently seen. Bullets flying, blood and some beautifully-directed scenes had me smiling. What is revenge, Frank? VENGEANCE.
Stylish, brutal and beautiful. VENGEANCE combines some great visuals with great acting by Johnny Hallyday, and makes me hungry for more Johnnie To films. Definitely check this one out.