Johnny Hallyday in the least. I read his name in a movie that sounded interesting because I was familiar with the director and wanted to give him a try. Who is he? A French singer/performer and actor who in the 1960s was dubbed the French Elvis Presley. Pretty lofty comparison, isn't it? My first introduction to him -- singing or acting -- was a good one, a Hong Kong action shoot 'em up, 2009's Vengeance.
For almost 20 years, Francis Costello (Hallyday) has tried to put his checkered past behind him, opening up a successful restaurant in Paris and working there as its chef. But in Macao, his daughter and her family are brutally attacked by a hit team; her husband and children killed. The daughter (Sylvie Testud) lives long enough to see her father one last time, dying soon after his arrival in Macao. Costello is a former hit man and returns to the life he tried to put behind him. He enlists the help of three local hired killers, Kwai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), Chu (Ka Tung Lam), and Fat Lok (Suet Lam), to assist him in finding the killers, but in his search for revenge, Costello isn't telling them something very important about himself.
A little over a year ago, I stumbled across the films of Hong Kong director Johnnie To, starting with The Mission, and have been hooked ever since. While carving out quite a little niche for himself, To is clearly a fan of past cinema, paying homage to directors from the 1960s and 1970s with both his style and storytelling, but also simply the ways he goes about getting his message across. His characters -- typically the definition of anti-heroes -- reflect the doomed camaraderie and loyalty of men fated to die bloody a la Sam Peckinpah in the Wild Bunch. His stories take place in a sparse, cruel world a la Jean-Pierre Melville, and the action and gunplay are reminiscent of both those directors, but he was obviously greatly influenced by John Woo's slow-motion, blood-squibbed landscapes. Most importantly, he does all this while still being unique and original.
What I love about the films of To, Peckinpah, Melville, Woo and even someone like Sergio Leone are the worlds they create in their stories. To doesn't make the criminal underworld look glamorous, but he makes it look effortlessly cool and stylish. These are all bad men with deeds that must be answered and paid for, but these are also men who live by a code and expect others to do so at the same time. When you give your word to someone, you're expected to keep it. These hired killers are the modern day gunslingers. They do their jobs for money, exploring a cutthroat world and just trying to survive. To shoots these men (with a camera, not physically shooting them) like the iconic heroes of those past directors. Four men silhouetted against a backdrop, their coats whipping around, all of them waiting for the dangerous and possible death ahead of them. Stylish, cool, and great characters to go along with.
Like many directors, To has his crew of actors he likes to work with so he's worked with them on repeated occasions. Start with Chau-Sang as Kwai, the unofficial leader of the group of three hit men. He's quiet, stoic, loyal to a fault and he's principled. Lam's Chu has similar qualities although he questions their objectives a little more while Lam's Lok goes with the group as needed. We're given little in the way of background, but there's a sense of history among the group. Chau-Sang and Lam are frequent collaborators with To, both the actors and director getting along quite well. Hallyday is an interesting choice to play Costello. Besides his eyes looking truly bizarre, he's a solid if unspectacular anti-hero. I don't know if this character -- or Hallyday as an actor -- could carry the movie alone, but as part of this killing quartet, he works well. In pre-production, the part was offered to Alain Delon who ended up deciding not to take the part. Hallyday does a good job as Costello, but I can't help but wonder what Delon would have done with the part.
Another frequent To collaborator, Simon Yam plays George Fung, the Triad mob boss who ordered the hit on Costello's family. Putting together his stories/scripts, To is always a fan of likable anti-heroes and love to hate villains. Yam isn't around a whole lot during the movie, but he tries to make the most of his appearances. Some more background would have been nice for his character, but the lack of development doesn't derail the movie. A somewhat obvious twist -- to this somewhat slow reviewer -- involves Fung's alliances, but it is telegraphed pretty early. 'Vengeance' does try to throw a couple plot twists our way, but none of them really come as an effective surprise. One uses a story point from Memento -- a forgetful main character -- but it feels forced into the script and a little hackneyed at times.
All that description and analysis of story and character seems a waste as I try to wrap things up. To doesn't have the name recognition of some of the best action directors around, but he should. Blending the bloody, slow-motion action sequences of Peckinpah and Woo, To is a phenomenal action director, able to put unique set pieces together that bring his films up a notch or two. Even the ones that feel familiar are a treat to watch develop as the body count rises. One moonlit firefight is impressive in a wooded, isolated park, but the best has Kwai, Chu and Fat Lok battling a small army of killers, all of them decked out in body length, hooded dusters. If you're anything like me, you're drawn in by the action and end up staying for the style and characters. Not To's best, but it's certainly up there.
Vengeance <---trailer (2009): ***/****