'Vengeance' mixed effort to globalize To

Co-pro does less than seamless job with cultural mash-up

HONG KONG -- The idea was simple enough: Globalize director Johnnie To, the master of Hong Kong gangster thrillers, with an English-language production featuring a star from the West.

But is To still To when he loses the folksy Cantonese dialogue and his uniquely local ambiance?

Not quite.

Instead, you get the cultural jambalaya that is "Vengeance." The French-Hong Kong co-production stars French rock legend Johnny Hallyday as Costello, an assassin-turned-chef who rushes to Asia to avenge the death of his daughter's husband and two sons. Culturally out of his element, he reaches out to a group of local killers who help him track down the men behind the hit.

Costello turns out to be a good metaphor for To, who, like his main character, struggles to find his cultural bearings.

Clearly the movie's French investors wanted to preserve To's signature style. Instead of asking To to shoot a film in the West, they brought the West to To. The entire movie was shot on location in Hong Kong and the neighboring gambling enclave of Macau.

As in his previous films, To thrives at using the urban landscape of rundown buildings and dark alleys for his gun battles. The movie's highlight is a beautifully choreographed showdown set in a recycling yard where the opposing sides take cover behind large blocks of recycled garbage, which they flip as they move closer to each other. (The other gunfights, however, are mediocre, including a bizarre slow-motion sequence set in the woods.)

But the producers didn't realize that To's brilliance is as much tied to his stylish action choreography as a sense of place and culture.

Costello's new Chinese gangster friends -- To regulars Anthony Wong, Lam Ka-tung and Lam Suet -- all speak impeccable English, even showing off a decidedly implausible mastery of colloquial American English.

But colloquial Cantonese, the ease of the dialogue -- instead of stilted delivery of English line -- is as critical to the essence of To's films as his technical sophistication.

The language also stifles the development of a key theme of the movie: the camaraderie and loyalty between Costello and his new Chinese friends.

Communicating in English, Hallyday and the Chinese cast never strike up a natural on-screen chemistry. If the gangsters only spoke Cantonese and communicated with Costello through gestures and basic English, not only would the film be more convincing, it would also force a reliance on body language, a more primal, intuitive connection that would have made for better drama and cinema.

Instead,by trying to impose a more universal language on To, To got lost in translation.