“What does revenge mean when you’ve forgotten everything?”
Johnnie To is the reigning king of Hong Kong bullet operas. He makes the movies that John Woo doesn’t make anymore. Though he uses some of the tropes of the genre, like ample slow motion and an endless supply of ammunition, his films never tell simplistic, straightforward stories, and he has a style that, while part of a larger movement, is uniquely and identifiably his own. In Vengeance, which just hit region 1 DVD, To creates an action film that has just as much in common with Unforgiven and Memento as it does with Hard Boiled.
French pop legend Johnny Hallyday, often referred to as the French Elvis, stars as Francis Costello, a dapper, but ground down, gourmet chef who travels to Macau after his daughter and her family are brutally gunned down in their own home. As she clings to life in a hospital, Costello sets out on a quest for revenge. He roams the neon lit streets in a fedora and trench coat, with a lion’s face and a snake’s eyes. Ultimately he realizes that he is a stranger in a strange land, and tracks down a Triad hit squad of his own to help him in his quest. His team includes fellow Hong Kong action legends Kwai (Anthony Wong), Chu (Ka Tung Lam), and Fat Lok (Suet Lam).
To has a penchant for crafting modern day westerns (his earlier film Exiled is a prime example) tempered with elements from film noir. Costello and company operate in a world of moral ambiguity as they ride the landscape searching for their targets. The good guys aren’t all that good, and nothing is strictly black and white. Cool, grim killers populate the landscape of Vengeance, and despite minimal dialogue, the characters come through strong, their personalities developed out of action and expression instead of endless chatter.
Costello has some obvious skeletons in his closet. How does a chef know how to field strip a semiautomatic pistol and reassemble it blindfolded? As his crew soon devises, he used to be in their business, though he retired after taking a bullet to the skull. The slug is still lodged in his brain, and Costello is gradually losing his memory. In a move that references Memento, though less gimmicky (you can watch Vengeance multiple times without getting bored), he uses photographs and notes to remind himself of the task at hand. Continually fading out, Costello’s past is shrouded, even from him, and he remembers less and less with each passing day. In other hands this twist could easily falter, but To doesn’t rely on it to prop up the narrative, using it instead to provide emotional and thematic weight. After all, as Chu asks, “What does revenge mean when you’ve forgotten everything?”
To’s action scenes have always been spectacular, and Vengeance is no exception. While there is enough action to please anyone, there are a few tent-pole scenes. An intricately staged, moonlit gunfight, where the clouds cover and uncover the action, is one of the unique and visually masterful shootouts you’ll ever see on screen, and you’ll marvel while watching the desperate last stand in a junkyard during a windstorm.
Vengeance is a twisted tale of revenge, loyalty, and shared bonds. Even in quiet moments, To infuses the film with a narrative thrust that propels the story, and gives it a perfect, continually escalating pace. Built upon cycle after cycle of violence and revenge, each act leads only to more retribution and bloodshed, until the characters are unable to free themselves from the twisted cyclone they have created. Even forgetting everything that has happened, as Costello does, can’t free him—or you—from this morass.
The DVD comes with a decent ten-minute making of featurette, but not much else aside from the theatrical trailer. The picture looks crisp, though, and this is worth picking up for the film alone. The acting and direction are superb, even the music, a sort of noir Morricone, is a perfect fit, and Vengeance stands with the best of its genre, and reaffirms To’s place among the top action filmmakers in Hong Kong—and beyond.