If there's one thing Johnnie To could never be accused of, it's being un-ambitious. His latest film, "Vengeance" has all the classic To hallmarks: striking cinematography, a plot that focuses on honor amongst criminals, some over-the-top action, and actors Anthony Wong and Lam Suet. Initially written by longtime collaborator Wai Ka-Fai, "Vengeance" was conceived as a vehicle for legendary French star Alain Delon. Delon passed on the film, despite his desire to work with To, upon seeing the script. Unfortunately, this isn't a case of a great actor making a mistake, but a great actor making a wise decision. Determined to not let the script go to waste, To finds a new lead in French pop star and minor actor Johnny Hallyday.
A very straightforward tale of what the title advertises, "Vengeance" focuses on Hallyday as Francis Costello, an aged chef who reveals early on in the movie, he hasn't always been a cook. Costello's daughter lies in a coma in Macau, the victim of a violent home invasion leaving her husband and two children dead at the hands of assassins working for an unknown client. Costello, by a twist of fate happens upon a trio of assassins in a hotel and manages to hire them to seek out and kill the perpetrators. The assassins consisting of the leader Kwai (Wong), Lok (Suet), and Chu (Lam Ka-Tung) take a shine to Costello over a midday lunch, where Costello bests Chu in a race to see who can put together a disassembled pistol. Costello reveals he is slowly losing his memory, the result of a past injury and relies on photographs to remind him of his task as well as the three men he's just hired. Kwai's group soon realize they aren't just responsible for seeing the job completed, but also Costello's safety.
Ka-Fai's script isn't terrible in any way, but never follows through properly with any of the ideas it puts out. It begins at a rapid pace, introducing us to Costello and Kwai's team separately, and soon we are in Hong Kong, hot on the trail of the killers. Then the story overplays its hand, by adding some very obvious twists to the picture. Ka-Fai plays with the ideas of honor and loyalty willy-nilly, sometimes being very straightforward with the themes and sometimes temporarily taking detours only to beat the same ideas like a dead horse. The film's final act is the closest the film comes to being a mess, for reasons I can't discuss without spoiling some of the story developments.
To's direction is in top form, despite the decidedly shallow story. His visual eye results in some very memorable action pieces that range from crowded shootouts in an abandoned building, to an over-the-top battle in a field involving rolling bales of garbage for cover. Cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung ensures the film is at least pleasing to look at, even in its most banal moments. Where To falters most is in pacing, rushing to get to Ka-Fai's twists and then cramming in some easily disposable filler sequences to pad the time out. At 109 minutes, "Vengeance" seems about 20 minutes longer than it actually is; at around 90-95 minutes it would have been a more manageable film.
While one could easily see why Delon passed on such a predictable and cliché story, To pushing forward with the project while leaving so many obvious nods to Delon's past drags things down a notch, as Hallyday is not even close to a proper substitute for Delon. Even though he is tasked with very little compared to Wong and other supporting characters, Hallyday looks out-of-place in the film, only capturing the quiet moments effectively. His delivery is incredibly wooden and he appears to struggle to recall lines in some scenes, not because of it being a character trait, but because he's not sure just how he's supposed to play the part. When the film depends on him to hold up the finale, he's just too unbelievable at that point and the movie ends with a whimper instead of a bang.
On the same note, Wong who is always dependable, even in the most disposable and/or trashy role, appears to check out through the middle of the movie and only brings his game towards the end; bored is a great adjective for his performance. Also worth mentioning is the choice to dub a good portion of Lam Suet and Lam Ka-Tung's performance in English. While the film takes place in Macau and Hong Kong and many of the characters speak their native tongue, Hallyday's French origins forces all four characters to communicate in English. Hallyday's English skills are passable and Wong's are incredibly strong, but To chose to dub the other two, rather than just have Wong translate for them and their performances are hurt for obvious reasons.
I wanted a lot more out of "Vengeance" than Johnnie To delivered. While the ride as a whole was mildly satisfying, the entire production from a story and acting standpoint is not up to par given the parties involved. This is a prime example of why some projects just shouldn't proceed, especially when the lead role was tailor made for one specific person. Fans of To will definitely want to check this out, but don't expect something on par with "The Mission" or the flawed, but fun "Fulltime Killer." This is a generic story, just done with an incredible visual kick.
The 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer boasts a strong level of detail, only affected in a minor way by some noticeable digital noise. Color levels are lifelike, capturing the cold underworld in it's many shades of grays and blues. Contrast is just a hair higher than one would classify as a natural look, but does ensure all nighttime action is visible.
The English/French/Cantonese 5.1 audio track strikes with a vengeance (no pun intended); dialogue, even in some hushed conversations is clear and appropriately mixed from scene to scene, while the surrounds get a workout during the loud and intense gun fights. This is one of the few "gun" movies that gives the sub a workout, making sure our heroes' guns at least have an extra kick to them. English and Spanish subtitles are included.
The extras consist of a brief (10-minutes) behind-the-scenes look at the film that is more promotional, relying on sit-down interviews with the filmmakers amidst behind-the-scenes footage. The film's trailer is also included.
Far from Johnnie To's best work, "Vengeance" is an average story tacked on a great presentation. While it delivers in the action department, it falters heavily in creating a believable main character and falls back on plot contrivances to keep viewers on their toes, even when the twists are visible a mile away. The DVD at least gives the film a proper technical presentation, highlighting the director and cinematographer's wonderful visual work. Rent It.