Johnnie To’s first – and, to date, only – international co-production does not quite scale the levels of inventiveness found in his Hong Kong-specific works, but Vengeance remains a beautifully staged and operatic action thriller.
French chef Francis Costello (Johnny Hallyday) arrives in Macau following the brutal murder of his son-in-law and grandchildren, and the near-fatal shooting of his daughter. Revealing lethal skills from well before his restaurant days, he hires a trio of Chinese hit-men (Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, and Lam Ka-tung) to aid him in tracking down the criminals responsible.
Vengeance is beautifully staged, with all of the slick cinematography and lighting, tight editing, and generally atmospheric mise-en-scene that has typified To’s post-handover works. What it perhaps lacks is a sufficient hook to make it stand out. There is a level of inventiveness to its story – Costello turns out to be suffering from dementia, and is gradually forgetting everything to do with his revenge mission – but it never feels quite as well developed or distinctive as the director’s better works. It also suffers from much of the dialogue being performed in English, since the film’s native Cantonese and French speakers are all communicating awkwardly in a stilted third language. When the action explodes into an elaborate gunfight, it’s as good as To’s action cinema gets. When things cool down and the characters turn to conversation, Vengeance stumbles.
Johnny Hallyday is a curiously idiosyncratic presence at the heart of the film. Wai Ka-fai’s screenplay was developed for French screen legend Alain Delon, but when the famed actor changed his mind To settled on “French Elvis” Hallyday instead. He has a rock star’s screen appeal, dressed oddly in a suit, black overcoat and hat and looking like a refugee from a 1950 French thriller. The character feels somewhat unnatural, and the performance often seems a little stilted, yet at the same time he perfectly captures a ‘fish out of water’ vibe.
The local Hong Kong cast feel much more naturalistic and assured, although they are largely playing to type. Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, and Lam Suet have all played very similar characters before in other To productions, and their easygoing and natural performances have the feel of slipping back into a comfortable pair of shoes. Lam Ka-tung feels particularly effective, giving a quiet and assured performance that sits behind the more energised work from Wong and Lam. It is the kind of modest support work that can make an ensemble sing without ever drawing attention to itself.
All in all, Vengeance represents what might be considered ‘entry level’ To. It boasts the director’s style and aesthetic, and is an effective and well-paced action thriller. It shows an authentic view of both Hong Kong and Macau, and showcases a great cast of actors performing the sorts of roles they do best. There are better Johnnie To films out there, however; viewing this feature after the likes of Election, Exiled, or PTU may accidentally lead to disappointment. Very good, but not the best you can find.