Thursday, December 9, 2010

Johnnie To's VENGEANCE gets a theatrical release -- after VOD, DVD and streaming

You could have seen it on VOD, and you can now see it via DVD and streaming. Yet here it is opening on a theater screen. However you view it, movies don't get much dumber -- or more disappointing -- than the latest effort by revered (sometimes, even by me) Hong Kong filmmaker Johnnie To, who has given us the likes of Breaking News, Election and Sparrow (click and scroll down) and who now does a belly flop with VENGEANCE.  To, shown below, is noted for his action scenes, but perhaps he is growing tired of them because several of those featured here are desultory, at best -- particularly the one in the woods at night that offers nonsensical stops and starts and shots of our hero looking at the moon in mid-shoot-out. (There is one pretty good gunfight, however, that doubles as an ode to recycling.)

Full of the usual convenience and coincidence of this genre (unless Macao has only a single major hotel, with one floor of guest rooms), the movie begins with a great set-up: Grandpa -- played by, yes, Johnny Hallyday, has his whole family wiped out and is thus primed for the titlular passion.  To that end, he hooks up with a trio of assassins, and the bond they form is actually rather endearing: funny and occasionally moving.  The surprise hook -- kicking in midway along and having to do with memory loss -- is a good one, though we've seen it before in movies such as The Memory of a Killer. We've also second-guessed the identity of the villain long before the film manages to cough it up, and as usual, the police (not to mention the occasional pedestrian), are simply nowhere to be found.

As usual with To, there are some gorgeous compositions (four men on the prow of a ship entering Hong Kong harbor) and colorful reflecting-pool photography involving neon signage and rain. And the notion of competing gangs with something surprising in common is also fun. 

The best of the film, unfortunately, is all up front; as it plows along, it grows more foolish and ridiculous.  As the conclusion bears down, there is so much synthetic sentiment (above) and mystical malarkey afoot, all you can do is snicker and avert your gaze. Hallyday is fairly one-note, as usual, but the worst offense is promising us Sylvie Testud (below) and then providing her with an infinitesimal role. By the finale, the film borders on embarrassing. When action directors have a dry spell, must they turn this pretentious?

Vengeance, via IFC Films, is opening this Friday at IFC Center in New York City. 


GHJ - said...

Jim - I can see why you would think this is dumb. I'm a To fanatic and it still didn't entirely resonate with me. I actually found the action scenes fascinating, especially the build-up in the park and spills over into the forest. But I agree the film turns into a mess in the second half, which is too bad because I really liked the bare-bones build-up.

James van Maanen, said...

Yeah, Glenn, I probably AM being too hard on Vengeance, but as it got worse and worse as it went along, by the end I was livid. So I should probably have tried to recall the better moments earlier on when I was writing the review. But even To's action scenes seemed trite and silly this time around. Could I be growing out of Hong Kong fare? Say it isn't so!