Monday, August 2, 2010

Johnnie To's VENGEANCE conflates cooking, killing and kids -- to little avail

Hong Kong 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 dry up, must they turn this pretentious?

Vengeance is available only On-Demand, beginning this Wednesday, August 4, via IFC's Midnight series.  Click here to determine availability.

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