French pop star Johnny Hallyday has one of those wonderfully tarnished faces—the face of a once-beautiful man ruined by a life of behaving badly. The sort of face ideal for filmmakers looking to plumb endless levels of regret and photogenic action-movie machismo. In Johnnie To's Vengeance, Hallyday is Costello, an aging former hitman who returns to his true profession to fulfill the titular aim after a triad wipes out his daughter's family in Hong Kong. A stranger to the city, Costello hires three triad members himself, led by the charismatic Kwai (To regular Anthony Wong), to help him navigate the city's criminal netherworld as his mind wastes away from a previous injury. The scenario is the oldest of old hat, of course, but the execution is audacious.
It's appropriate that To has made a film that concerns a Frenchman, as his films have always seemed more indebted to French than Hong Kong crime films anyway. To's films have a classic French thriller's preoccupation with detail. An early sequence following Kwai's team on a seemingly unrelated hit is striking, above all, for its silence. The expected bombast and hyperbole are pointedly absent, and you're eased into the shadowy peril of the characters: We can hear the gathering of the small metallic links as Kwai's man slowly pulls a chain lock to get at a target. Such grace notes continue to haunt the film. A bicycle, riddled with bullets after a target shoot, supernaturally glides across a junkyard as killers prepare an attack. A car door slamming shut is heard with existential vividness. Shards of obliterated terrain—whether it be leaves or garbage debris or glass—fall on the characters during the gunplay, but this ironically beautiful chaos never calls attention to itself.
But admirers of To know that he can also bring the pain when necessary. Vengeance has a few of the most intense and original action sequences to be found in a contemporary film. I'm surprised To hasn't been more widely imitated in the West, as his wide widescreen stagings are gorgeous, terrifying, even poignant. To shows you everything, you see every character and variable at the same time, and that reveals—paradoxically—how little you can see. To approximates the incoherence of a gunfight by rendering it overwhelmingly coherent; you grasp the disorientation of the killers without having to weather another cop-out shaky-cam eyesore. Every action sequence is superb, but two stand out: a gunfight in a park in which the moon could be said to serve as a deus ex machina, and an abrupt, courageously irrational stand-off in an abandoned dump that resembles a balletic restaging of the advance of Burnham Wood if it were to require enough squibs to rival Peckinpah.
A talented action director's technical virtuosity tends to overwhelm any element in a film that could be said to be human; we actually probably count on it, tolerating that indifference as a necessary evil. To's films, however, are frequently human; he's tasteful and confident with his actors (Hallyday and Wong are particularly terrific). An early scene between Costello and his hospitalized daughter usually represents the sort of exposition-laden eating of one's vegetables that many directors would rush through in order to get their pissed-off avenger on the streets. But To lets the sadness hang. All matters of exhilarating choreography and pyrotechnics aside, Vengeance is allowed to be a story about an older man contextualizing recent loss and trying his damned best to move on.
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Johnny To's pictures are gorgeous and rigorously detailed—frequently allowing you to see variables that many films won't (or can't), and this DVD is an excellent reproduction. You can discern the varying degrees of darkness in an alleyway shootout while marveling at the brilliance of the reds and browns in the junkyard confrontation near the movie's end. The sound is equally precise particularly regarding the shootouts, which are intentionally quite a bit louder than the dialogue, jarring you as well as the characters. (This may sound like an obvious observation, but a number of DVDs, even of action pictures, don't, sadly, differentiate the sound effects as much as you'd assume.)
A typical making-of featurette and a trailer. Nothing special.
Johnnie To isn't a good action director, he's a good director period—and Vengeance is one of his best.