Vengeance (2009)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2010-12-25
Summary: Far from Johnny To's best
According to scholars and critics of the work of British novelist Graham Greene, many of his books take place in “Greeneland” a place that exists in Greene’s imagination but that is based very solidly in the poor, hot, and dusty tropical backwaters of Mexico, Cuba, Vietnam, West Africa and Haiti during the 1940s and 1950s. Greeneland is inhabited by fringe-dwellers, spies, priests, exiled diplomats, failed bureaucrats and other tortured souls struggle to live in a world that is both inhospitable and uncaring. No matter what their profession or former profession happens to be they now are surrounded by physical and moral decay, often oppressed by crippling guilt. The characters and the setting are unmistakable as creations of Graham Greene.
The movies of Johnnie To might be located in the quasi-mythical city of To-ville, a place populated by small groups of men united by an unshakable commitment to each other and to the skilled practice of violence. To-ville is physically smaller than Greeneland, limited largely to Hong Kong and Macau, densely populated cities with miles of empty streets. The characters move deliberately sometimes almost somnolently while surrounded by people going about their frenetic lives. The world Johnny To creates is ruled by arbitrary and vicious crime bosses who are obeyed without question by the armed men they send on bloody missions. It is a strange looking place, oddly lit with a limited palette set off by flashes of super-saturated color. “Vengeance” is located right in the middle of To-Ville.
The addition of French actor Johnny Hallyday doesn’t change much. He is an easy fit with the Johnny To ]clean up a problem by killing the “white guy and three Chinese” who attacked some of his hitmen. That sums up Hallyday’s role: He is a Caucasian gangster who looks very different from Chinese gangsters but who feels, thinks and acts exactly like them. Even though Costello just flew in from Paris it is easy to see he is a citizen of To-ville. And, despite what he says he is probably still active in the French underworld. He claims to have been nothing but a restaurateur for the past 20 years and shows that he can create a feast from whatever he finds in a refrigerator but also is able to strip and reassemble a pistol faster than Chu. Blindfolded. In order to give the story an emotional edge and a bit of poignancy Costello is suffering from severe (although very selective) memory loss to the extent of needing pictures (he has the last working Polaroid camera in Asia) of the good guys and bad guys with their names attached so that he knows who to kill. It is a clumsy and intrusive device and weakens the climax and denouement of the film—annoying and not effective.
The opening sequence is the best in the film. It is a startling slaughter of a family that includes a scary stalk by the killers through the silent house, a valiant but doomed stand by mom—a few scenes that Sylvie Testud must have had a great time doing. It ends with the killing of the two young children made necessary by the mistake of one of the killers, underlining one of the themes of To’s work, the ultimate futility of innocence within a corrupt and evil world. It is also the reason that Costello arrives in Hong Kong—if his daughter was grievously wounded but his grandsons were left alive he would be less interested in immediate revenge.
From then on it is pretty much Johnny To by the numbers, as conventional and stylized as commedia dell'arte: stock characters doing predictable things. Anthony Wong is Lee, the leader of a three man crew that kills when ordered and paid by Mr. Fung played by Simon Yam playing Simon Yam. They carry out an efficient hit on Fung’s mistress and one of his employees but encounter Costello at the elevators; he staying on the same floor as the illicit lovers. This brings the two strands of the story together and Costello joins the gang. From then things drag on to their inevitable conclusion, a dreary march punctuated with gun battles and one high intensity stand-off. One of the gun fights is particularly dull. It happens at night in a forest and consists of men ducking behind trees while other men shoot and hit the trees.
I am not able to watch a Johnny To movie without comparing it to others he has made and “Vengeance” suffers in the comparison. There is no lack of talent—many of the artists who were in front of or behind the camera here also worked on masterpieces such as “Exiled” and “The Mission”. In order for the To formula to work the audience has to be convinced that the characters have unbreakable ties with each other, that any of them would die to save the gang or any member of it. With his paucity of theme and straight ahead plots, the characters are all that is left. To asks us to ignore that the people in his crime movies are all vicious criminals and to empathize and root for one group of killers against the other.
In the past he accomplished this in a couple of ways. In “Exiled” the small but pivotal and very well written Jing, the dutiful triad wife played to perfection by Josie Ho, allowed some humanity to peek through the rough exteriors of the killers. In “The Mission” the five gunmen recruited to protect and possibly take a fall for the shadowy boss really bond together in a fellowship of violence. We accept its internal rules because To created a microcosm of male friendship that made the characters real and us able to identify with them. Additionally, of course, the action scenes in those moves were perfectly thrilling and thrillingly perfect which those in “Vengeance” are not.
There are a number of excellent scenes. The picture looks great with first rate cinematography and production design but “Vengeance” is a flawed, minor and even gimmicky work by a masterful artist.
Reviewer Score: 5