by Mel Valentin
SCREENED AT THE 53RD SAN FRANCISCO INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Vengeance," prolific Hong Kong veteran Johnnie Toís ("Sparrow," "Linger," "Exiled," "Election," "Throwdown," "Fulltime Killer") latest film, doesnít waste time in setting its revenge-thriller premise into motion. While the opening credits are still rolling around the three-minute mark, Irene (Sylvie Testud), a Frenchwoman married to a Chinese businessman, identified in the credits only as Mr. Thompson (Vincent Sze), has been, along with her husband and two children, shot and left for dead after a brutal home invasion. Iren barely survives, but husband and children donít.Her father, Francis Costello (Johnny Hallyday), arrives less than 24-hours later, eager to bring the killers to justice. The inspector, Wong (Maggie Siu), assigned to the case lacks the sense of urgency Costello expects. In a major (and majorly implausible) coincidence, Costello runs into Kwai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), Chu (Ka Tung Lam), and Fat Lok (Suet Lam), three hitmen who work for a local Triad boss, George Fung (Simon Yam), as they exit a hotel room, post-hit. Kwai surprisingly lets Costello go. Costello seemingly repays the favor when he refuses to identify Chu in a lineup. Costello has another plan in mind: he wants to hire Kwai and his men to track down the killers of his daughterís family. Kwai eventually agrees, setting the stage for an unlikely (as in supremely unlikely) alliance between Costello and the three hitmen.
"An underwhelming, disappointing effort by everyone involved."
The unlikely alliance between Costello and the three hitmen is only one of several implausibilities To and his screenwriter, Ka-Fai Wai, slip into Vengeance. To makes another set of hitmen warm, caring family men (the better to add pathos to their ultimate fate), an over-the-top, gluttonous, sociopathic villain (typical for Hong Kong films), and an amazingly fecund, ambiguous female character. She has eight children, all half-Asian, half-Caucasian (their father or fathers never mentioned), with a ninth on the way. She lives in a rundown shack by the sea where she tends her brood and makes a little extra money offering sanctuary to Costello, Kwai, and his men.
With more than more than 50 directing and producing credits to his name, itís not surprising that To has developed a loose, improvisational, sometimes chaotic shooting style. He rarely works with a completed script (Vengeance was an exception, a requirement imposed by his French backers). More often than not, however, more often than not, visual and narrative sloppiness slips into his work.
Not surprisingly, Vengeance devolves into the illogic and nonsense typical of Hong Kong action films. Story and characters are secondary to the action set pieces. To orchestrates several inventive, original action sequences, all cleanly shot and edited (thereís an obvious lesson there, of course, for hyperkinetic Hollywood filmmakers), one set in a public park at time that features heavy gunplay, but few actual hits, another in and outside a rain-soaked tenement building, and a third in and around a garbage dump. That still, however, leaves the climax, a disappointing run-and-chase, disappointing because To either ran out of ideas, out of money, or both.Despite the talent involved, "Vengeance" is nothing special and a spot in a well-regarded festival alongside qualitatively better films isnít doing "Vengeance" any favors. Its premiere at the Cannes Film Festival last May in competition may seem perplexing superficial, but isnít when you consider it was a French-Asian co-production. Ultimately, "Vengeance" is a standard-issue revenge-thriller, made superficially original by its stranger-in-a-strange land setting (but even thatís been done before, with more style and panache).
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originally posted: 04/24/10 08:00:00