The Film: Vengeance (2009)

The Principals: Johnny Hallyday, Simon Yam, Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Ka Tung Lam, Sylvie Testud, Johnnie To (director)

The Premise: An amnesiac Frenchman comes to the Far East to get revenge on the men who murdered his daughter’s family.

Is It Good?: Very much so.

Johnnie To has long been one of my favorite directors, but his output is so prolific (the imdb lists four movies of his slotted for release this year) that I might not catch something he did until it hits home video, on top of the fact that not everything he does gets a theatrical release stateside. Vengeance mostly played the festival circuit, but like how no one was sure True Grit would be a success, it’s odd to think one of the best action directors working today has films that are barely released stateside. Vengeance has something of a standard action narrative, but To’s visual wit behind the camera turns it into something special.

Johnny Hallyday plays Costello. This is important because the role was originally intended for Alain Delon, and Delon’s character in Le Samourai is named Jef Costello. Hallyday’s character’s past is slightly muddled, so this could be seen as a fan-fiction sequel to those films. Perhaps in Hong Kong Le Samourai was more regaled there than anywhere else in the world (especially since John Woo is also a huge fan). Or maybe just Woo and To saw the film in film school, and geeked out on it. If Vengeance has a key problem it’s that because the film reminds you of those classic French films, it’s hard to place Hallyday in the midst of them because he doesn’t have the same history with the French Crime Wave of cinema, and he doesn’t have the weight of an icon. the other problem is that he’s also got a head condition so he takes Polaroids. It’s never ruinous, but you know where it came from.

That said, Johnnie To knows how to shoot the ever-loving hell out of an action sequence. Few filmmakers are as gifted at staging the geography of groups of men as Johnnie To. There’s a sequence in a subway tunnel where one man is converged on by three men, all coming from different directions. The impact of the choreography mixes with purpose as Costello hires the three Hong Kong hitmen (Anthony Wong, Lam Suet and Ka Tung Lam) to get the men that killed his daughter’s family. The film opens with Sylvie Testud watching her husband get shot, and then hides her kids in the closet. Later on in the film – while the three hitmen accompany Costello to the crime scene – we see what happened with the children. It’s a show-stopping sequence as the professionals recount exactly what and how the first group of killers went about their business, and – as must be done with genre exercises like this – the duality of the characters, the fine line they walk between being the good or bad guys is highlighted. The leader of the killers can sense there are kids in the closet, and tells one of his men that he shouldn’t open the closet doors. But when the man does, the leader tells him that he has to kill the children because “they saw your face.” It’s a moment cold blooded murder, but it’s also a sequence that opens up questions of being a professional. You don’t feel sympathy, but you understand.

From there the film traverses the well worn stocks of this sort of film – stuff that To has done before in films like The Mission – so the good guys bond, and they find the three guys who they think/know did it. The four leads follow the bad guys, only to see that they’re going to a family picnic. The good guys walk through, and the bad guys (also professionals) know what’s up. But no one says anything until a Frisbee comes over to them, and lets the groups get to know each other. Later, as they wait to have a shootout, kids bring over the good guys some dinner. But once the families leave, it’s on, and the sequence is immaculately staged, with lighting being the key to success – and the moon keeps getting obscured by clouds.

Is It Worth a Look:  I can’t help but note the familiarity of the material, but such is the case with many genre pictures. The film makes it plain from the title what sort of film it is and it sticks to that, but what makes the film great is how To manages to stage action sequences. There are two in the third act that are nothing short of breathtaking, as one involves men hiding behind bales of garbage, and the other involves a man targeted for assassination because of the stickers placed on him by children. To – at this point in his career – draws parallels to action stalwarts like Budd Boetticher and Walter Hill. He makes these no-nonsense action films that deliver. But To also has the temperament of a director of musicals. He knows how to stage sequences based on the rhythm of the moment, so there’s a great fluidity to the action sequences. Basically, this is one of the best action films I’ve seen for the last year or so. I think it played stateside in 2010, and had I seen it a week ago, it would have made my best of list.

Random Anecdotes: I am a huge To booster, and I played a clip of Breaking News before. Again, let me recommend this, The Mission, Sparrow, and Running on Karma to start with. But track this down when you can.