- RatedM18 /GenreAction, Crime
Rating: 3 out of 5
There are certain movies where posing and looking cool is far, far more important then credible characters and believable dialogue. And there are certain movies that make you forgive a focus on style over substance, and sweep you up in the gosh-darn awesomeness of it all.
Vengeance, by prolific Hong Kong director Johnnie To, isn't one of the latter, although it does score highly on inventiveness and visual innovation. It's likely that To had grand ambitions for this film, for it to transcend the gangster genre and become a high-art amalgamation of a crime story, a brotherhood tale, and a morality play involving a world-weary protagonist.
It contains a highly stylised gun battle set in a garbage dump, where giant compacted cubes of obsolescence offer inadequate cover under a hail of bullets; and it includes a frenetic chase sequence that takes place within the close quarters of a dark and dank public housing block, and ends in a street full of umbrellas, reminiscent of a classy sequence in To's 2008 film, Sparrow.
But for all its inspired moments, this film is let down by a leaden leading-man performance from aging French rock star, Johnny Hallyday, cringe-worthy, stilted dialogue (mostly when English is spoken), and plot devices that might have seem clever on paper, but appear stunningly ill-conceived when put on film.
Hallyday plays Costello, a French chef who arrives in Macau after his daughter and her young family are taken out in a mafia hit. After swearing revenge-you know this by the fact that he writes the English word "Vengeance" on pictures of his slain kin-he stumbles upon a group of professional hit men carrying out a job, and decides to hire them for his own ends.
Thereafter, the story swiftly bonds Costello with his hired goons, an honourable trio led by Kwai (Anthony Wong). They sense, correctly, that he has a hidden past. A shared meal of pasta and wine, cooked up by Costello, is enough to make these shady characters the equivalent of sworn blood brothers. Before long, they track down another trio of hit men, led by Python (Felix Wong), whom they deduce are the ones responsible for the impassive Costello's well-hidden grief.
The confrontation is fascinating. All the criminals here seem to subscribe to a code of ethics, just like that found in any mundane vocation. Among professional killers, the rule is not to involve family: pretty wives and cute children. Make up an excuse and adjourn into the night, so that they don't have to watch Daddy whip out his firearms and engage in to-the-death shootouts.
Add a gleeful Simon Yam as an over-the-top gangster chief, with a maniacal penchant for violence, an unsatisfying over-choreographed finale, and a revelation about Costello that doesn't do anything to engender much-needed empathy, and the final result is a romanticised hit-man buddy movie-a mixed bag, in other words-with a few too many false steps.
No rose-tinted glasses, stylish or otherwise, can obscure this film's failings.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
"Just when I thought I was out... they pull me back in!" Michael Corleone, The Godfather, Part III (1990).