“What does revenge mean when you’ve forgotten everything?” asks one of the triad hit men enlisted by Costello (Johnny Hallyday), a retired French gangster, to avenge the slaughter of his daughter’s family in Macao. That question is never answered, making the subplot about Costello’s failing memory feel more like a gimmick than a theme: This isn’t a film that inspires deep thought. But the camerawork, the lighting, the colors, and especially the carefully choreographed dances of death are so good they make Vengeance worth watching.
Johnny To’s trademark standoffs are the best thing about Vengeance, which came out last year after premiering at Cannes and has just been released in the U.S. (It’s available only on IFC’s Movies on Demand channel.) Often slowed down, underlit, and color-saturated to increase the drama, his gun battles generally start by dramatizing the conflict with a vivid scene or image and end with hard guys in close quarters, blasting the crap out of each other. The one that will probably stick with me longest from Vengeance starts at a picnic ground where Costello and his crew have tracked down the men they are hunting. Finding their targets with their wives and kids, our guys settle into a neighboring table and wait for the families to leave. The other men know why they’re there, but their families have no idea. Then a colorful boomerang floats into view, travelling to Costello’s table from the table they’re watching and back again. It’s a beautiful sight and a powerful symbol, making visible the link between the two tables while reminding us of the child who threw it, whose carefree world is about to explode.
To is an admirer of the hard-guy films of Jean-Pierre Melville, and his killers have a lot in common with Melvilles’s, including their laconic cool, their strict codes of honor and loyalty among thieves, and the fedoras and trenchcoats they seem practically sewn into (Costello and his crew wear theirs even on the beach), but the look of his films is all his own. Vengeance’s power lies partly in the way To positions people in the frame, creating tension with compositions like the triangle Costello and his men form in the fork of a subway tunnel when they first meet. It’s partly in the way he uses bright light and dark shadows, like the stuttering lights that add another element of instability and tension to that subway scene. But it’s mostly in his colors: saturated bursts like the paintball-bright red blood that mists the faces of the men in his firefights and the rectangles of saturated color that break up the cityscape at night while Costello and crew pursue their prey.
He also relies on a stable of favorite actors who are masters of minimalism, skilled at getting us to like or loathe a character with little dialogue and no overt emoting. Hallyday is new to the tribe, but he fits right in with his pockmarked face and pompadour and the lizard-like impassivity of his small blue eyes, which are as translucent and expressionless as after-dinner mints.
Vengeance isn’t my favorite To movie (those would be Election, Triad Election, Exiled, and Mad Detective), but it surely won’t be my last. There’s nothing new about the story itself, and some scenes feel a little too familiar: the ritualistic gathering and loading of weapons before a final standoff, the extraction of a bullet without anesthetic, the hit men whose boss assigns them to go after themselves, and so on. The dialogue sometimes sounds stilted, even a little hokey, though to be fair, that’s at least partly because the actors are speaking languages they’re not fluent in (the film is a mixture of Cantonese, French, and English). But even second-rate To makes most of this summer’s movies look like mighty thin gruel.
Elise Nakhnikian has been writing about movies since the best way to learn about them was through alternative weeklies. She is currently the movie reviewer for TimeOFF. She also has her own blog, Girls Can Play, and a Twitter account.