Tuesday, August 25, 2009

VENGEANCE - Johnny To's Bullet Ballet

VENGEANCE (crime thriller)
Cast: Anthony Wong, Johnny Hallyday, Lam Suet, Lam Ka-tung, Maggie Siu, Simon Yam and Sylvie Testud
Director: Johnny To
Time: 107 mins
Rating: * * * (out of 4)

PREAMBLE: Aimed apparently at the European market, Johnny To's Vengeance is a well-choreographed 'bullet ballet' rather than a crime thriller. With French rocker-turned-actor Johnny Hallyday (pic, above) in the cast, the movie should attract the French crowd, not to mention J-To's fans worldwide.

And in most Johnny To flicks, the narrative, or substance, is secondary to its style. It's art that counts more than action.

WHAT'S IT ABOUT? A family, including two children, is brutally gunned down by three hired assassins in a Macau suburb. All are killed except the French wife, Irene (Sylvie Testud) who is seriously injured. Enter Costello (Hallyday), Irene's father from Paris, who swears revenge. The craggy-faced Costello, a chef who owns a restaurant in Paris, accidentally runs into a trio of hit men (Anthony Wong, Lam Suet and Lam Ka-Tung) and hires them to track down his daughter's assailants.

Of course, the quest for vengeance is not as simple as we would have thought. There are a number of (mostly improbable) twists up in J-To's sleeve and these are revealed as the plot unravels. Costello, it turns out, has a complicated past. He has a bullet in his brain and his memory is fading fast. That is why this is the first time we see a bunch of hit men allowing their photographs to be taken on Polaroid camera.

HITS & MISSES: J-To maintains a sense of wonder and curiosity throughout the first-half of the movie. Many elements of the plot do not make sense and coincidences abound. Still, we overlook these because J-To makes it clear that we are not to take the plot seriously. Indeed, the narrative is littered with humorous lines and crazy happenings.

J-To's regulars, Wong and the two Lams, understand the producer-director's style and they deliver performances that seem to be moving to a 'rhythm'. Hallyday reminds us of spaghetti western star Lee Van Cleef and an older version of Alain Delon (who, incidentally, dropped out of the film earlier). And although Hallyday's acting is 'wooden', he is still the centre of attention in this effort that seems to borrow a few ideas from Memento. Simon Yam has a few scenes as a mob boss while Michelle Ye is commanding as a 'beach mom' with seven children under her care.

The climactic showdown, shot in a vast waste paper dump, looks more like a paintball game than a serious gunplay - with red 'paint' splashed all over the shooters. Played to an appropriate music score, it is cool MTV stuff. And then there is the trademark J-To 'food for thought' for the audience: "What good is revenge when you cannot remember any of it?"

THE LOWDOWN: An Asian-styled Tarantino shoot-'em-up.


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