Francis Costello (Johhny Hallyday) is called to Macau after receiving news that his daughter is in the hospital after a horrific attack. Three armed men blasted their way into her house Opera-style and not only nearly shot his daughter to pieces, but killed her husband and their two children… Costello’s only grandchildren. He gets as many details about what happened from his critically injured daughter as he can and then listens to her last silent request. She wants to be- needs to be- avenged.
Costello doesn’t take it lightly. He soon hooks up with three hitmen (Johnnie To regulars Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam and Lam Suet) that were conveniently killing a nearby guest at the hotel he was staying and offers them a job for everything he has in the world- a huge wad of cash, a fancy watch, and a restaurant back in France. Costello needs their help desperately as he’s a foreigner in a strange land, but he requests a pistol so he can take part in the fun. As you can guess, he’s no innocent himself. The four men go back to the scene of the crime to find out who did this and take care of them accordingly, but the job isn’t as simple as it might seem.
Johhnie To’s love of gunplay has been demonstrated quite adequately over the last couple of decades, so it shouldn’t be much of a surprise to see so much slow-motion violence on display here. The man simply fetishizes guns like few other directors, and here they’re used as they usually are in his films- as merely a tool. An incredibly cool tool, but a tool nonetheless. Murder is never something that makes a character dwell or have sleepless nights, especially if they think themselves in the right. No, murder is about as hard a decision as brushing teeth for these characters, even though it’s shot in an incredibly stylized way, the blood a vicious shade of red straight from the 1970s. Questions about morality get turned on its head as each successive death actually makes Costello get a bit closer to feeling like a human being.
One big plot point in the film is that Costello is losing his memory thanks to a bullet that’s lodged in his head, a reminder (a memento, one might say) of his sordid past. He takes Polaroids of everything he does and people he meets in order to better remember them, which certainly won’t remind you of any other films. While the memory loss does lend itself to a great shootout near the end where Costello tries to remember who he’s hunting down (in the middle of a gunfight in the streets!), it never feels like anything more than a gimmick to make the character more sympathetic.
But Hallyday is pretty excellent in the role, his haunting blue eyes and grizzled look really helping to make you believe that this man has seen far too much in his life. If it weren’t for such laughable English dialogue from him and most everyone else in the film, it would work perfectly. Hallyday is French, after all (he’s known as the French Elvis, and even if he isn’t that well known over here he’s incredibly popular in his country) and Wong, Lam and Suet have equally heavy Cantonese accents… making Johnnie To’s decision to make this his first English-language film come at a cost.
While we are watching a master of his craft fill a movie full of his usual dark, brooding, and just plain incredibly badass trademarks, it feels like we’ve seen this story many times before. It’s a solid film that features many memorable scenes, but, much like the very title of the film, Vengeance leaves you feeling a bit empty inside.