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CANNES — This is a tale of two Johnnies. Renowned Hong Kong action director Johnnie To teams up with iconic French singer-actor Johnny Hallyday for a stylish, whiz-bang revenge melodrama in “Vengeance.”
With atmospheric locations in Hong Kong and Macau and To’s signature set pieces of choreographed gunplay all accomplished with a bemused wink to his audience, “Vengeance” can penetrate just about any market in the world. Popcorn and art certainly can co-exist as this movie amply demonstrates.
Interestingly, To knew nothing of Hallyday’s long career in music and cinema before Alain Delon dropped out of the project. But thank goodness the two Johnnies met. With his long, deeply etched face, lanky figure in dark suit and tie, sometimes accessorized with an overcoat and black hat, and slow, steady gate, Hallyday perfectly fits the story’s concept: A soft-spoken, deadly stranger in a foreign land who seeks the help of local assassins to take his revenge.
Hallyday plays a Parisian restaurateur who journeys to Macau when his daughter is critically injured and her husband and two small children brutally murdered by Triad hit men. There is in the Frenchman’s manner the strong suggestion that whatever his culinary talents, he knows his way around guns and men of violence even better.
Hong Kong action films display impatience with logic and procedure in their anxiety to get to the point. So Hallyday doesn’t need to go looking for help to penetrate the Chinese crime world — it comes right to him.
Down the corridor from his hotel room, moments after he checks in, three hit men (played winningly by Anthony Wong, Lam Ka Tung and Lam Suet) are taking care of their boss’ unfaithful mistress. So Hallyday hires them to help him find and execute his family’s killers. No one seems to anticipate what an audience immediately will: Won’t these Triad hit men know the Triad hit men who wiped out Hallyday’s family? And isn’t it likely that their boss may know or actually be the other assassins’ boss?
Yes and yes to all that but, again, only the characters seems oblivious to the obvious. Best to forget these kind of questions so you can get to two extremely witty shootouts and one chase up and down a narrow building.
One shootout takes place at a picnic area in the woods, where the two sets of killers calmly wait for a barbeque to finish, night to fall and the hit men’s families to depart before jerking out their weapons. The other, by contrast, is in broad daylight at a dumpsite, where everyone takes cover behind huge bales of compacted trash as they blast away with eager abandon.
A kicker here — which To and writer Wai Ka Fai make clear much too late in the story, to be honest — is that an old bullet lodged near the Frenchman’s brain is causing rapid memory loss. So rapidly, again illogically, that his sense of purpose when he sets foot in Macau and later Hong Kong abruptly vanishes at the mid-point. He must, as did the hero of “Memento,” take photos of people and label them so he knows friends from enemies and can recall his daughter’s tragedy.
So the philosophical question the film raises is what does vengeance really mean when you’ve lost all memory? Whatever the answer to that, everyone is programmed to continue. Which means that even the white man’s hired Triad assassins are willing to go up against their own boss and fellow assassins for the sake of this foreigner.
OK, so rational behavior takes a backseat to genre requirements, though few if any will care when the killers stalk each other with such a tongue-in-cheek sense of destiny and deliver deadpan dialogue that makes fun of their own absurdity. Call it cornball existentialism.
Sylvie Testud turns up with hardly any introduction as a woman who plays a key role in assisting Hallyday in exacting revenge while Simon Yam seems to enjoy himself as the smug villain.
Cheng Siu Keung’s moody cinematography gives “Vengeance” a noir-ish sensibility while David Richardson’s smooth editing pulls the action sequences together in a most satisfying way.
Festival de Cannes — Competition
Production companies: ARP, Media Asia, Milkyway Image.
Cast: Johnny Hallyday, Sylvie Testud, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka Tung, Lam Suet, Simon Yam.
Director: Johnnie To
Screenwriter: Wai Ka Fai
Producers: Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai, Michele Petin, Laurent Petin, Peter Lam, John Chong
Director of photography: Cheng Siu Keung
Production designer: Silver Cheung
Music: Lo Gayu
Costume designer: Stanley Cheung
Editor: David Richardson
No rating, 110 minutes
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