Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Vengeance (2009) Review

It's far from anything remote to say that the artistic arc of one Johnnie To has been one of HK cinema's great hard lefts to greatness. Starting up within good 'ol Tsui Hark's camp of madmen in the 90s with the camp-soaked Heroic Trio, and inevitably becoming one of Asia's foremost cinema stylists has been something of cult legend. His journeys into a noir vision of the east's criminal element, and beyond have had the kind of artful eye that is capable of rising above even middling material. Which is perfect for Vengeance, which could have easily been a lesser film in another's hands.

French rock legend, Johnny Hallyday plays Costello, a restaurant owner who's rarely seen daughter is the survivor of a savage home attack upon her husband and children in Macau. New to the geography, but bristling with rage, employs the aid of a cadre of professional hit-men, led by the ever-great Anthony Wong. But in the hunt for those responsible, the lines between Costello and his killer charges soon resemble one anothers, leading everyone to question, just who is this mysterious chef anyway?

Again, with a synopsis like that, it's easy to dismiss this as late night movie-time fodder, but with To at the helm, we are host to some stunning imagery & mood as both camps of killers lock horns in a game that has some oft-unbreakable rules. It is the life of those who take them that are the main focus of the piece, and the sacrifices to self that it entails hovers over the cast like a shroud. And as the film's larger scope than is normal for a To film, it is rife with gorgeous action, cityscapes, and interiors that invoke a kind of ghost world aura that these men inhabit. To, Hallyday, and Wong are fully aware of the kind of film that is at play here, and milk it for everything it's worth. Also in on the wild proceedings are Simon Yam as a criminal boss, and Ip Man's Lam Ka-Tung as one of Wong's crew.

Also of note are the blistering shootout scenes that are amped to absurd levels with a terrific combo of no incidental scoring in these scenes, and a powerful sound mix, creating a tension that is truly nerve-busting.

And yet even as all of this sounds great at the offset, it is still clearly To's precision-based direction that is at front and center with this film as the story takes some unexpected turns in the third act. Even when some of the decisions don't work altogther, it's the attention to Hallyday and his journey toward the final showdown that make it work. Taken for what it is, Vengeance is a beautiful noir actioner that lives and breathes atmosphere if not effective drama.

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