Cannes '09 Watch: "Vengeance"

If you ask me who the coolest director working in Hong Kong right now, the first name to pop in my head would be Johnnie To's. Though he's known as a chameleonic director who has dabbled in various genres (my very first exposure to To was the Chow Yun-Fat tearjerking family drama All About Ah-Long), he's understandably popular in the West for his Triad and cop movies.

What seperates him from his contemporaries is his approach to action scenes, which is less kinetic and huge compared to the gonzo action of John Woo or Tsui Hark. Johnnie To takes his cues from Sergio Leone and makes his shootouts all about the buildup. Do yourself a favor and rent Exiled to see how a bunch of guys shooting at each other can look like gorgeous painting in motion. To is at Cannes this year with another crime story, the upfront-sounding Vengeance.

Diving into the world of noir this time, To and his frequent collaborator Wai Ka-Fai craft a revenge story of a retired French assassin who goes to Macau and fight gangsters to avenge the gunning of his daughter. The role was originally offered to star Alain Delon, but when he refused, it went to musician Johnny Hallyday. The character's name, Costello, is an obvious nod to Delon's famous killer in the 1967 French noir Le Samourai. Had they successfully roped him in, no doubt many would consider Vengeance the unofficial sequel to that classic.

Watch the press conference with Hallyday, To, Wa Ka-Fai and two HK actors Anthony Wong and Simon Yam, who are both To regulars.

"This tightly tuned, heavily armed vehicle is vintage To, though it may strike both partisans and detractors as more of the stylish same. Western elements and abundant bloodshed make this To's most marketable item since 2006's Exiled, with appeal for Asian buffs and French hipsters alike." - Justin Chang, Variety

"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." - Kirk Honeycutt, The Hollywood Reporter

"This morning I saw a classic Western named Vengeance. There were certain parallels with Clint Eastwood's The Unforgiven; it had gun-slingers striding down streets deserted by the townspeople, and a score (guitars and lonely flutes) that Sergio Leone might have envied." - Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

"Another highlight is Vengeance, a brilliantly directed genre study from the Hong Kong master Johnnie To in which the French legend Johnny Hallyday pays a blood-soaked visit to Macao." - Manohla Dargis, The New York Times

"I was reminded of how empty To’s movies always turn out to be underneath the elegant slo-mo camera moves. Still, it’s never less than diverting, and sometimes hilarious." - Mike D'Angelo, The A.V. Club

"And because Vengeance thinks its total corniness is profound, it probably is. [...] To’s force is in his improbabilities—men’s self-set fates carried to their full, preposterous conclusions. They kill each other because they have to, and like each other just because they do, like Hawks characters taking on the system as a good excuse to hang out with each other. If not one of To’s worst films, Vengeance is one of his best." - David Phelps, The Auteurs

"As always, the sensuality of To’s visual style and soundscapes and the choreography of the film’s bullet ballet provide reasons to watch, but the contrived plot, some wooden English dialogue and Hallyday’s stilted perfomance derail proceedings well before the final showdown." - Lee Marshall, Screen Daily

May
20
2009
Arya Ponto • Contributor

As former Editor of JPP, Arya likes to entertain peeps with his thoughts on pop culture, when he's not busy watching Battle Royale for the 200th time. He lives in Brooklyn with a comic book collection that's always the most daunting thing to move with, and writes for Artboiled.com.

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