Dir: Johnnie To

Rating: 1.7/5.0

IFC Films

108 Minutes

Is there any easier way to build a movie than making it a saga of revenge? There’s no need to deal with complicated personal motivations when it can all be as simple as laying out how a character was wronged and then letting camera roll as they go about the dirty business of exacting retribution, probably with a hefty dose of firepower. The only complicating factors that need to be added are those that slow the carnage. There’s a reason Charles Bronson was able to transcend his remarkably limited range to gainful employment for years by hitching on to that model of simplistic cinema.

Johnnie To’s new film Vengeance follows the established model with uninspired precision. It takes no time at all for the triggering incident to take place, leaving a front door in shotgunned splinters, a young French woman (Sylvie Testud) in a hospital bed, and her husband and two children deceased. This brings her father (Johnny Hallyday) to her home in the Macau region of China, where she makes up for her lack of voice by tapping out the best description of her assailants that she can using the words in a handy newspaper.

Bearing the suitably tough name Costello, her father is a chef and restaurateur back in France, though one with his own history as an assassin. It’s been a while, though, so he seeks out assistance from a trio of thugs that he encounters at his hotel. They were conveniently dispatched there by local mob moss George Fung (Simon Yam) to take care of his wife and the shortsighted fellow who’s engaged in a tryst with her. Kwai (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang), Chu and the unfortunately (but accurately) named Fat Lok (Suet Lam) gladly take Costello up on his offer in exchange for all his worldly possessions, including a big house in Paris and restaurant on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées.

This grim band of brothers tracks down their quarry with remarkable ease, especially considering this is China, which, last I checked, has no shortage of people. That sets up the requisite gritty standoffs and ballets of bullets, all filmed in the most stylish manner possible, which largely means listless slow motion and the sort of murky lighting usually reserved for dive bars. Wounds erupt with fountains of blood, and spent bullets spring across the scene like errant popcorn kernels burst free of their kettle. It’s that brand of fetishized violence that Hong Kong action directors learned from Hollywood and then turned into a weird, cruel sort of art.

Hallyday is a major star in his homeland, a rock singer whose string of hits starting in the 1960s was prodigious enough to earn him the designation “the French Elvis Presley.” He plays the role with all the acting authority of a transplanted celebrity, barely able to muster up even a glower. Though his character is operating from a place of fury and anguish, he usually stares down his adversaries with all the force of someone who’s displeased with their latte order.

As grindingly conventional as it is, the film does discover a bit of welcome cheekiness in its third act. Costello’s days as a hired gun left him with a stray bullet lodged in his cranium. The doctors warned him that it could shift at any time, wiping his memory clean. Naturally this injury from around two decades earlier exacts its delayed toll right in the midst of his new mission, leaving him wandering around like a more leathery version of Leonard Shelby from Christopher Nolan’s Memento. Not only can he not remember who he’s after, the very concept of vengeance is a little fuzzy. In orchestrations meant to keep him on the path he chose, Costello is given a gun that literally has his target’s name on it and is sent out to the city streets told to find the person some kids have adorned with stickers making him officially a marked man. This last twist hardly soars with inspiration, but any touch of wit is welcome in a plodding, empty exercise like Vengeance.

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