When Vengeance opens, a mommy and a daddy are gunned down in their home while their kids watch from a secret hiding place. Then, from her hospital room, a bed-ridden survivor begs, “Avenge me!” Johnnie To’s latest jumps off from an origin-story so familiar—from Kill Bill, from Lost—it’s archetypal. But what sets it apart, like everything else in To’s often generic oeuvre, are the details. Such as, while the villains and the victims are predominantly Chinese, that sole survivor? Why, it’s Sylvie Testud! (In what disappointingly amounts to a cameo.) That black-clad archangel who promises her satisfaction? Johnny Fucking Hallyday, known 50 years ago as The French Elvis but now looking much more Expendable.
Like many an auteur before him, To has found himself with bigger fans outside of his homeland—in France, of course—thus this polyglot international co-production. Hallyday plays Testud’s restaurateur father, Costello (in a nod to Le Samouraï), a kind of Marlowe in Macao; at one point, he says, “I’m a total stranger here,” and he means it in more ways than one: he’s a Frenchman in a foreign land, a white guy sticking out amongst the neon-lit streets and Asian throngs. But he’s also a noir-ish hero, garbed in overcoat and fedora, moving through a post-noir action flick. He can’t shoulder his mission, or his movie, alone, and thus contracts a team of Macanese mercenaries (To regulars Anthony Wong, Lam Ka-Tung and Lam Suet). “Who are you?” one of them asks him, after they discover Costello can reassemble a pistol, while blindfolded, in record time. “A sheriff,” he answers—albeit one who has rediscovered the Old West’s erstwhile wildness anew, in the Far East.
The Western has been an intertext in To’s work before, most notably, in recent years, in Exiled, which this film most closely resembles—for better and worse. To habitually evinces a mastery of set piece and cinematography—of space—especially, like Sergio Leone, in positioning characters for a confrontation. His films, then, rise and fall by non-formal criteria—whether he uses his mastery superficially (as in Exiled), for deeper, stately graceful allegories (the Election films) or for something in between, as in Mad Detective. Unfortunately, Vengeance, with a script by To’s regular collaborator Wai Ka-Fai, feels steeped in vacuous cool, flouting a flagrantly 90s style—with conspicuous nods to Memento and the Pulp Fiction ethos—without the substance or madcap humor of his best work to support it.
That said, there is a modest philosophical twist in the third act, when Costello loses his memory and with it his thirst for vengeance. “What does revenge mean when you’ve forgotten everything?” one character muses. Like the recent Life During Wartime (or even Get Low), Vengeance contemplates the conflict between forgiving and forgetting. But whereas Solondz’s film advocated for a little cultural compassion, To’s seems to fall, at best, on the side of amnesia, or willful ignorance. It seems no accident that he sets the penultimate showdown at a landfill. All this violence? Literally—what a waste. Of course, you can’t expect a man so enamored with the lyrical operatics of violence—whose every bullet unleashes a moist spritz of blood—to reveal himself as a pacifist. Ultimately, To posits vengeance as so strong an impulse that it can’t be forgotten—only satisfied. But, Johnnie, must it be satisfied in such uninspired terms?