Vengeance (2009)
By: Rip on September 25, 2010  | 
Eastern Eye | Region 4, PAL | 2.35:1 (16:9 enhanced) | English DD 5.1 | 104 minutes (Full Specs)
The Movie
Cover Art
Director: Johnnie To
Starring: Johnny Hallyday, Anthony Wong, Ka Tung Lam, Suet Lam, Simon Yam
Screenplay: Ka-Fai Wai
Country: Hong Kong/France
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I first became aware of Hong Kong director Johnnie To's work through his pair of masterful gangster films, Election and Election 2. Admittedly, they were the only films of his I'd seen since coming to review this most recent one, the Hong Kong/French co-production and last year's Golden Palm nominee at Cannes, Vengeance. I knew this film had divided audiences for various reasons, so this only served to pique my curiosity even more.

An aging and retired French gangster, Costello (Johnny Hallyday), now working as a chef, travels to Hong Kong when his daughter, son in law and two grandchildren are gunned down in a seemingly professional hit. Though badly injured, his daughter survives and begs her father to take vengeance upon the perpetrators. And so he sets out to do just that, even though he has no idea where to start in this unfamiliar country. Rather conveniently, he happens upon three professional hit men (led by the legendary Anthony Wong, underplaying here) who've just bumped off the unfaithful mistress of their boss (the great Simon Yam, having a whale of a time). Tentatively, he approaches them and tells them of his needs. Hesitantly, and with little verbal communication, they take Costello up on his offer, which includes payment of cash and his restaurant in Paris. Once hired, he takes individual Polaroid photographs of each hit man and writes their names on each photo. Costello does this throughout his encounters, due to the fact that there is a bullet from days gone by lodged near his brain and causing the Frenchman rapid memory loss. He needs these photos so he knows his friends from his enemies and to never forget his daughter's tragedy. But questions still remain; won't these hired Triad hit men possibly know the other Triad hit men who wiped out his family? What if their boss knows, or actually is, the other assassin's boss? And ultimately, what does vengeance mean anyway when you're losing your memory? For the answers to these questions and more, you'll have to see the film…

This stylish, revenge melodrama is one of Johnnie To's best and is also his first English language film. It's an odd fusing of popcorn flick and art movie, with some standout moody, almost noir-like cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung. Scenes like Costello wandering through the rain in confusion, trying to spot his targets by reminding himself with the Polaroids, look absolutely magnificent. Some of the major action set-pieces, especially one involving Anthony Wong, are positively stunning. But through all the gloom and doom, humour is never forgotten in Vengeance, with some occasional tongue-in-cheek dialogue delivered completely deadpan by Yam and Wong in particular. Then there are other wryly amusing moments, such as a shootout that takes place at a picnic area in the woods, where two groups of killers wait for a barbeque to finish, night to fall and the hit men's families to depart before pulling their guns out. It's terrific stuff. And of course, there's the all important casting of the central character, Costello. Apparently, French screen legend Alain Delon was originally to play the part (in a nod to one of that actor's most famous roles, that of the identically named hit man Costello in Jean Pierre Melville's classic, Le Samourai), which would have been a rare screen appearance for the actor these days. Delon pulled out because of his alleged dissatisfaction with the script, but here we get French rock'n'roll singing legend, Johnny Hallyday. Director To had supposedly never heard of him, and though there was negative criticism of his casting in some circles, Hallyday pulls off the role with surprising aplomb. His odd looking, craggy charisma stands out, completely befitting Costello's grimly weathered character. Anthony Wong and Simon Yam are also at their customary best.

Vengeance is apparently the third and final part of a trilogy from Johnnie To, along with The Mission from 1999 and Exiled from 2006. Connected in ideas and themes only, I would personally be keen to seek these two previous films out, especially if they're as good as this one.
Framed at 2:35 with 16:9 enhancement, this is yet another fine transfer from Madman's Eastern Eye. With settings ranging from dark, rainy nights to outdoor beach locations, this transfer handles it well with not a hint of digital noise in sight. Very nice indeed.
Here we get a rock solid 5.1 surround track, and for those with the capability, a DTS track is also included. It won't blow down your walls, but it's pretty damn good all the same.
Extra Features
Sadly, there is just a trailer for the film. I have heard that there is a 2 disc French release, but must profess to knowing nothing more about it. A documentary about Johnny Hallyday, let alone Johnnie To and the film, would have been most illuminating. Standard English subtitles and those for the hearing impaired are included.
The Verdict
Movie Score
Disc Score
Overall Score
For fans of Asian action cinema, this is a must-see. Whilst it's nothing entirely new, this visually arresting, testosterone fuelled gangster flick is infused with such verve, that it's impossible not to appreciate and is yet another fine work from the great Johnnie To. Highly recommended.

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