Movie Review: Johnnie To’s “Vengeance” is an Exquisitely Directed Gangster Picture

There hasn’t been a  genre film director as versatile and  virtuoso  as Hong Kong’s Johnnie To since Howard Hawks.   Like Hawks, To excels at both screwball comedy and action pictures, although his comedies are somewhat lesser known in the US than his gangster tales. His hit men and bodyguards are as integral to the Hong Kong film industry as Hawks’ private eyes and gunslingers were to Hollywood’s studio era.  Both directors lean towards themes of professionalism as the dividing line between the civilized and the feral, with that professionalism  extending from the film’s characters to its performers and crew.

To has made nearly fifty pictures over the last three decades, rarely missing a year and sometimes directing  as many as four  features in a single year.  With so much product,  there is a surprising lack of duds.  Like Hawks, who remade “Rio Bravo” twice, To has a predilection for exploring variations on the same theme. Where  “The Mission” and “Exiled”   examined  what happens when hired killers fail to complete their assignment due to sentiment getting in the way of professionalism,   “Vengeance” deals with the allegiance such killers have to their bosses. Unlike the earlier pictures, the ethics here are more clear-cut, with the unheroic trio in accord on how to proceed with their mission upon discovering they have accepted a job from their boss’s enemy.  One of the unique qualities of the script is the blatant honesty in the dialog.  There is no lying, double-crossing, or subterfuge. On occasions when a simple “yes” or “no” might be too hostile a response, a question of loyalty might be answered with a  “We know you and you know us.” This  is not an evasion; it is a declaration of war.

Another thing tying “Vengeance” to the earlier films is the cast, several of whom appear in all three films, and the three principals, Anthony Wong  Chau-Sang, Suet Lam, and Simon Yam playing    essentially the same characters they played in   “Exiled.” The wild card here is aging pop singer Johnny Hallyday, who plays Costello, a French chef come to Macau to avenge the killing of his daughter’s family. Costello proves he is serious, not only by offering the assassins everything he owns in return for their help, but by his speed in assembling  a firearm  while  blind-folded.

To takes care of  all necessary exposition in the first six minutes, and there is never any ambiguity in the plot. This kind of clarity is new for the director, who is prone to a casual unfolding of story that becomes more complex in its telling. The picture is anything but simple, however, with To finessing some ambitious sequences. In one case, the hit men hired by Costello are examining the scene of the killings, with  flashbacks to  killings intercut into their investigation.  As a result, we see the two groups of assassins almost simultaneously going about their business in the apartment, one commissioning the killings and the other investigating them, but the shared space of the two groups places them visually in the same brotherhood.

One might think somebody who has made as many gun crazy gangster pictures as To might be getting a little low on fresh ideas, but it isn’t so.   Bullets are blasted through doors and walls, they propel a riderless bicycle, and move toward one of their final targets from behind the most unique barrier since MacBeth’s walking forest.  The final suicide run foregoes the ecstatic embrace of death that pushed brotherhood a little over the edge in “Exiled” in favor of a more  elegiac end for this loyal, brave and true brotherhood of death

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