Film Review: Vengeance

Grieving father hires three hit men to avenge his daughter's family. Accomplished thriller marks Hong Kong director Johnnie To's first European co-production.

The lives and loyalties of hit men are put to the test once again in Vengeance, a moody, fabulously stylish melodrama from Hong Kong's Johnnie To. The formula may be wearing thin, but no one captures the existential angst of the assassin better than To, one of the most talented directors working in film today. To's fans always find his movies; the presence here of French icon Johnny Hallyday may broaden Vengeance's box-office appeal to a wider audience.

Hallyday plays Costello, a Parisian restaurateur with a shady past who flies to Macao, where his daughter's family has been brutally slaughtered. Isolated by language, Costello is also losing his memory, a dangerous handicap when seeking revenge. By chance he meets three professionals—Kwai (Anthony Wong), Chu (Lam Ka Tung) and Lok (Lam Suet)—who agree to help him track down the killers. Unfortunately, the three also work for flamboyant gangster George Fung (Simon Yam), whose demands will soon collide with Costello's plans.

While Costello cooks lunch in the kitchen of his daughter's home, Kwai and his cohorts reenact the crime upstairs, one of several memorable set-pieces in the film. To and editor David Richardson juggle time effortlessly, flowing from present to past and back again to connect Costello's killers with their counterparts Wolf (Cheung Siu Fai), Python (Felix Wong) and Crow (Yuk Ng Sau), who are eventually found in Hong Kong.

The script, by longtime To collaborator Wai Kai Fai, sets off the killers as matched pairs, both equally taciturn and resigned to the futility of their profession. When life means so little, family and honor become their driving forces. Grudging respect causes Kwai to delay one shootout, with disastrous results. A subsequent chase, hampered by Costello's increasing fragility, shows To at the top of his powers, combining a half-dozen points of view in sinuous tracking shots through crowded nighttime streets.

The confrontations get more violent when Costello and the others return to Macao, but the film also loses momentum as its characters meet their destinies. To's films have always had spiritual leanings, and in Vengeance they gradually replace the gritty realism of the opening hour. The climax has some superb ideas, but also asks viewers to abandon earlier expectations. To somehow pulls it off, if you can buy into his philosophy.

Vengeance's set-up lets To sidestep many of the language problems that have bedeviled other Asian directors. He gets a great performance from Hallyday, whose hooded eyes and battered visage are a perfect correlative for his character's spatial and emotional disorientation. (In her limited scenes, Sylvie Testud makes a strong impression as his daughter.) The easy interplay among To regulars like Lam Suet, Simon Yam and Anthony Wong (who looks like an Alan Cumming gone to seed) is wonderful to watch, with the actors drawing on years of experience working together as conflicted tough guys. Vengeance succeeds so well on so many levels that it seems churlish to ask more from Johnnie To.