It's been a while since the halcyon days of the late '80s and early '90s when Hong Kong ruled the film world. The once incredibly vibrant and inventive scene has taken major hits since rejoining the mainland in 1997, with increased censorship, such megastars as Jet Li and Jackie Chan bolting for Hollywood, and upstarts from Korea and Thailand stealing the spotlight. That's not to say there aren't still quality films flowing from Kowloon Bay, it's just that they're now having a much harder time escaping from the backrooms of Chinese grocery stores and into the mainstream. But director Johnnie To's expressive revenge thriller manages to be both a throwback to the glory days and a hopeful nod to the future.
The story is purely retrograde, a mash-up of tropes from the realms of gangland shoot-'em-ups and blood-drenched revenge operas.
A young family in Macau is ruthlessly gunned down at home by a squad of hit men, leaving three dead, including children. Though critically wounded, the mother survives and leaves her grieving dad just enough information to begin hunting the killers in Hong Kong. Star Johnny Hallyday — who's also known as, you'll note, "the French Elvis" — has had a long and varied career, though he's still mostly unknown in this country.
With his feline grace and haggard, world-weary features, he's like some odd fusion of Leonard Cohen and Charles Bronson. We get hints that his Parisian chef character Costello has a violent past, including one particularly nasty old head wound that's slowly erasing his memories. He encounters a trio of quirky Triad assassins and offers them wads of cash and the deed to his restaurant, as he literally has nothing left to lose. Keeping with HK-action tradition, Vengeance quickly dispenses with logic in exchange for extravagant, stylishly filmed gun battles, heavy on smoke effects and slow motion. Director To is the kind of dude who finds poetry in blood squibs, and his elaborately staged action set pieces recall "bullet ballet" master John Woo, though, thankfully, there are no floating doves.
The artful bursts of red mist are a flourish on To's carefully rendered backdrops and tasteful color palette, lending these brutal thugs more dignity than they deserve. In fact, the movie revels in its artifice, making style into its substance, but sometimes that is more than enough.
Opens Friday, Aug. 27, at the Burton Theatre, 3420 Cass Ave., Detroit; 313-473-9238; burtontheatre.com.
Corey Hall writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.