Johnnie To's gangsters add a French twist
FILM In 2008, the Pacific Film Archive did a retrospective on prolific Hong Kong director Johnnie To, highlighted by his two best films to date: 1999's The Mission and its sorta-sequel, 2006's Exiled. Both are about hired killers going about their business — a favored To plot that allows him to explore his fascination with male bonding, particularly amid crooks who fiercely adhere to the underworld's sticky loyalty codes.
His latest stateside release is 2009's Vengeance; I had to double-check to make sure this was a new movie, because how could To have not made one called Vengeance already? And a casual fan could be forgiven if he or she found this film familiar. The turf is classic To: hired killers, etc. The Mission and Exiled star Anthony Wong is, of course, the chief assassin; as always, he's a cool, stone-faced cat of the sunglasses-at-night variety. Taking orders from Simon Yam (as always, buffoonish-homicidal), Wong and his men (fellow To faves Lam Ka Tung and Lam Suet) blow away disloyal minions. There are elegantly staged gun battles, a post-skirmish tending-our-wounds scene, a daring getaway via a series of fire escapes, and lots of slo-mo.
So why not just stay home and rent Exiled instead? Well, there's one new element here: 60-something Johnny Hallyday, dubbed "the French Elvis" in the 1960s. His Costello is a killer-turned-chef seeking revenge for the death of his Macau-based daughter's family. He hasn't been in the game for decades, so he hires Wong and company to help him annihilate the bad guys. Hallyday has a certain glamorous presence, but at times it feels like he's been grafted onto Vengeance just so it won't feel like To is repeating himself (again). Costello is losing his memory at a rapid rate, so much time is spent waiting for him to shuffle through his Memento-style sheaf of Polaroids, struggling to recall who he's with, why he's there, and finally, "What is revenge?"
Indeed, as another character points out, "What does revenge mean when you can't remember anything?" Wong's gunslingers may have just met Costello, but he's paid for their loyalty — and earned their respect. Plus, his Paris restaurant is called "Frères," so of course his newfound "brothers" will finish the job. Forgetfulness (for Costello) and déjà vu (for everyone else) aside, when the focus onscreen turns to servin' up some payback, To fans will be in bullet-ballet heaven.
VENGEANCE opens Fri/13 at the Sundance Kabuki.