Director: Johnnie To
Year of release: 2009
Running time: 1 hour 49 minutes
Welcome to THE CRITERION CORNER, a recurring segment in which a film in The Criterion Collection, known for standardizing the letterbox format for widescreen movies and extra bonus features, is highlighted. The picture up for discussion this time is Johnnie To's masterful 2009 Hong Kong action/crime/western, Vengeance.
To say Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To is a master of framing, tracking, and geometric mise-en-scène is an understatement. The way he choreographs action through clever blocking, long shots/closeups, slow motion, and gliding camera moves is intrinsically linked to the emotional and psychological headspace of his characters. There's a brooding poeticism to his films that makes even the most standard gangster/mob plot invigorating; and his 2009 hit-man thriller Vengeance, is no exception.
While perhaps not as technically virtuosic as Triad Election or as thematically poignant as The Mission, To is still in top form here while giving iconic French rock/ pop star Johnny Hallyday the role of a lifetime as Francis Costello; a hulking former hit-man dressed in black suits and dark sunglasses. Arriving in China after his daughter is injured by thugs and two young grandchildren murdered, Costello goes on a hunt for the perpetrators, but coincidentally runs into a team of killers inside a hotel in a sequence which To stages for maximum drawn-out tension. Moments later, he hires the three hit-men; played by To regulars Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam, and Suet Lam, to avenge his grandchildren's deaths. What follows is a code of honor film reminiscent of classic westerns with a mixture of Hong Kong spectacle and swirling bullets.
Unlike a filmmaker like John Woo, who emphasizes action in a frenzied style of balletic mayhem, To uses spatial distances between characters and a keen understanding of geography in order to derive suspense. A scene where the group roam through Costello's daughter's house trying to figure out how the perpetrators initiated their ambush interspersed with rhythmic flashbacks is breathtaking, while the film's centerpiece sequence in a park where our heroes engage in a slow motion gun battle with a rival gang under the moonlight, is pure action filmmaking of the highest order.
As impressive as such moments are visually, To never loses sight of his characters; giving them amble time to bond over plates of spaghetti, dismantling and loading guns, and sizing one another up through stoic glances. Though Costello is gradually losing his memory due to a bullet in the brain, the film uses this less as a plot device and more to further the contradictions of revenge when the one doling out the punishment cannot remember his actions. It's a notion Christopher Nolan's Memento handled more overtly, but To nevertheless takes this ideology and tethers it to his concrete style, which makes the film a more melancholy affair than one might expect. A thrilling genre picture that often luxuriates more in nor-ish atmosphere than standard action beats, Vengeance marks a fitting entry point to Johnnie To's aesthetic flair and a welcome addition to The Criterion Collection.