Thursday, June 16, 2011


Johnnie To, 2009
Starring: Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, Gordon Lam, Lam-Suet

If you like triad/crime/action neo-noirs, then Johnnie To's newest effort, Vengeance, is for you. I had the fortune to see it during the Danger After Dark festival a few weeks ago and it definitely benefited from a theater audience.

Francis Costello (Johnny Hallyday), French chef and ex-hit man, comes to Hong Kong to get vengeance on the men who put his daughter in critical condition and killed her family. He has no knowledge of Cantonese or the Hong Kong triads, so he hires three native hit men (Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam, and Lam-Suet) to help him out, offering them all of his worldly goods which are extensive. They agree, mostly because of some sort of hit men camaraderie and set out on a dangerous, yet frequently warm and funny path to track down the Triad hit men hired to kill Costello's daughter, and eventually their boss, the adorably bratty Simon Yam. Unfortunately things don't go as planned. It is revealed that Costello is suffering from some neurological damage he sustained from a bullet to the head twenty years ago. He experiences increasing memory loss and is forced to take pictures of everyone to remember who they are. SPOILERS: When it gets too bad, the hit men deliver him safely to the island home of a young woman who cares for orphaned children. They return to complete the mission, but are ambushed. The young woman and children help Costello track down the Triad boss once and for all, but can he hold out long enough to complete his vengeance?

Overall I very much enjoyed Vengeance. It isn't anything new or special, but is a solid genre film and is populated with actors I would watch in just about any shoot 'em up noir/crime drama. The directing and cinematography are successful and enjoyable. The film is charming, entertaining and is worth watching, but only if you're in to the genre. There's a particularly fun fight scene at night, in a park, that is one of the high points of the film.

The real problem is the script. Apparently there was a lot of on set improvisation, which just doesn't work. It results in some shoddy, stilted dialogue that ups the cheese factor immensely. The writing is also not doing anyone any favors. What starts off as a solid film goes downhill about halfway through when the memory loss idea is conveniently introduced after the first major fire fight. It's what I like to call a convenient inconvenience. A character is doing too well and is provided with an obstacle, usually a cheap twist he or she has no control over that is randomly introduced halfway through the film. The drama is increased because the margin for success is much smaller, but this doesn't hold up to any sort of critical scrutiny or plausible character development. Casablanca is a noteworthy exception.

In retrospect, the script is split strangely in half. The first half is funny, unpredictable, and bad ass. The second half loses most of the humor, throws in weirdo plot twists and sends all the characters to hell in a hand basket in annoying, implausible scenarios.

Vengeance bizarrely opened at Cannes, which is not known to embrace genre films. Despite that, it garnered mostly positive reviews, probably due to a theatrical release in Hong Kong earlier this year and screenings at the Toronto International Film Fest last year. It also reunites a lot of the cast and crew from To's previous, much loved efforts Exiled and Mad Detective. It is also the third installment in a loose trilogy with The Mission and Exiled, insuring at least a rental from To fans.

Vengeance also has a close knit relationship with Jean-Pierre Melville's wonderful noir Le samourai. It's star, Alain Delon, was originally supposed to take the role of Costello, but allegedly turned it down due to disliking the script. Delon's character in Le samourai is named Jef Costello (like Francis Costello) and looks and dressed quite similarly to Vengeance's Costello. They are both hit men, though Delon's Costello is a young man in his prime.

For some reason I really get a kick out of productions, of which their are many in Hong Kong, split between different countries, cultures, and languages. Vengeance is co-production between France and Hong Kong, so that characters jump back and forth between Cantonese, French, and English, which everyone except Anthony Wong speaks badly and with a heavy accent.

If there is any real reason to see this film, it is probably the star power. It's directed by the great Johnnie To, stars Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam, and Simon Yam. What more do you want? For those of you who don't know any of these names, Johnnie To is a Hong Kong director and producer, most famous for crime/Triad films, for which he has gained a cult following. He has a distinctive style, but is usually able to say something interesting and relevant about Hong Kong society. Critically, he's known for his ability to combine commercial accessibility with artistic vision. And gun fights. If you want to check him out, rent All About Ah-long, his first action film with Chow Yun-fat, Exiled, Election, Mad Detective, The Mission, and Fulltime Killer, which is ridiculous, but is one of my favorite. Most of these are available on Netflix.

Johnny Hallyday is probably lesser known to Americans, but he's basically the French Elvis. He's been insanely popular in France and has branched out into acting, also like the King. He was influenced by Elvis and '50s rock and has had about a billion platinum albums in Europe. As an interesting side note, Jimi Hendrix opened for him on an early tour! He has also hired the likes of Jimmy Page, Peter Frampton and the Small Faces to play with him on studio albums.

The real reason I went to see this, aside from the fact that it's To's newest film, is Anthony Wong. I love him. He's a super famous Hong Kong actor who sometimes gets typecast as villains because he's half-English and half-Chinese and you can't really blame the Chinese for hating the English. He was in Hard-Boiled, The Heroic Trio, The Untold Story, a bunch of Johnnie To films, Infernal Affairs, etc. He is also a director and screenwriter and has produced some Chinese exploitation films. How can I not love a man who made a film called Raped by an Angel 4: The Raper's Union? I'm not kidding.

Finally, it's also nice to see Simon Yam and Gordon Lam. They're both regular supporting actors in dozens of Hong Kong action/crime films, though fans of the genre will probably recognize Yam from To's Fulltime Killer and Lam from Infernal Affairs. I realize it's probably confusing that they have similar sounding last names. Also, I almost forgot to mention Sylvie Tested, who plays Costello's injured daughter. She's a famous French actress and Western audiences should recognize her from La vie en rose, where she plays Piaf's troublesome best friend.

Vengeance is available on DVD and Blu Ray in France and Hong Kong (regions 2 and 3, respectively), but there's a cheap region 1 DVD available from MPI.

No comments:

Post a Comment