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Musings from the Edge of Forever

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
that is associated with RONIN ON EMPTY.

Sympathy for Monsieur Vengeance

 Vengeance 02

Vengeance…is His!

LoveHKFilm.com’s very own Kevin Ma reviewed Johnnie To’s latest film, Vengeance, after seeing it at the 2009 Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival. Then Kozo shared his thoughts on this stylish revenge flick on his blog back in February. So, seeing as how I’m the odd man out, I figured I might as well give my two cents on the movie as well.

For at least half of the film’s running time, I couldn’t help but wonder what Vengeance would have been like if its original star, Alain Delon, had not backed out of the project. After all, the character in Vengeance is named “Costello,” a nod to Jeff Costello,* the handsome, fedora and trenchcoat wearing protagonist of Jean Pierre Melville’s 1967 classic, Le Samourai. I won’t pretend that I’m an avid Delon fan; we do share the same birthdate (November 8th), although he’s a good ten years older than my father. But seeing him in Le Samourai and Purple Noon, Rene Clement’s 1960 adaptation of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, shows me what a cool customer this guy was — and perhaps still is. Sadly, this “What if?” speculation must be confined to the annals of movie geekdom for now.

Jeff

C’est la vie

In Delon’s absence, we have Johnny Hallyday. I’ll be the first to admit that I’m completely ignorant of the French music scene, but according to our friends at Wikipedia, he’s a rock icon, thought of by some as the French Elvis. And I have to say that some of that stage charisma translates to the big screen. And that mug of his! His face, ravaged by time, experience, and possibly some bad plastic surgery, speaks volumes and makes him instantly acceptable playing the role of a former hitman.  Hallyday’s character is an assassin-turned-chef, whose daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren get wiped out by a gang of triads led by…well, that would be telling. In full Charles Bronson mode, Costello takes a trip to Macau to pay his final respects and get bloody revenge. Although Costello must rely on three hitmen — Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam, and Lam Suet — to guide him, Hallyday looks pretty dangerous himself. The man’s eyes and the very shape of his face make him look like the devil incarnate. In that respect, you could say that the casting works.

Too bad the movie doesn’t. Despite the added appeal of a transnational French-Chinese collaboration, Vengeance is a somewhat by-the-numbers affair and feels incredibly lightweight in comparison with a lot of Johnnie To’s better work. Sure it’s stylish and full of great actors and interesting performances, but it really plays like it’s operating on autopilot, riffing on Exiled and The Mission and even seminal Hong Kong gangster films like John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow.

Vengeance 01

Revenge is a Dish Best Served…Rudely.

The film provides an interesting, if not entirely successful meditation on the relationship between memory and vengeance. Costello suffers from some memory problems, thanks to a bullet lodged in his noggin, so he has to rely on Memento-style clues like Polaroids to keep everything straight. For me, the memory loss plot device initially came across as stupid and hackneyed, but to the film’s credit, at least it has a purpose: what’s the point of revenge if you can’t remember why you’re seeking it? Is vengeance an extreme way of keeping the dearly departed person, in a manner of speaking, “alive”? After all, revenge has often been characterized as a way to honor the memory of the victim by dispatching the scumbag who took him/her from this world . Unfortunately, I can’t say that this line of thought is pursued in any substantial way beyond a rather on-the nose conversation involving Anthony Wong and his crew,** but at least the film provides some food for thought amidst the bullets.

You often hear people talking about broad comedies or action blockbusters as being “disposable entertainment.” Turn your brain off, have a good time, and — most likely — just forget the movie soon after. Well, “The Johnnie To crime thriller” isn’t quite in that class of movie, but it’s starting to go in that direction. Sure, Vengeance is better than most of what Hong Kong puts out there, but  sadly, the film only takes you to the edge of greatness, rather than plunging us headfirst into something truly wonderful.

* John Woo named Chow Yun-Fat’s character in The Killer after Jeff Costello.

** Is it just me or does Costello trust his new friends a little too quickly? How does he know that they’re not the ones who killed his daughter, et al? Now that I think about it, THAT would have made a more interesting story than what we got.

2 Responses to “Sympathy for Monsieur Vengeance”

  1. Paul Taggart Says:

    I agree, I found Vengeance to be a regression rather than a step forward. Also thought the memory angle should’ve been a more natural cause rather than a bullet in the brain. Daft! Yet I love the ‘chef my ass!’ line.

  2. kyra Says:

    I think Vengeance is fun and exciting to watch. And it make me even more curious to see Johnnie To’s other works, especially his masterpieces of course.

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