Plot-wise, Johnnie To’s Vengeance is about as simple as an action movie gets. When three gangsters shoot a French woman in her Macau home after murdering her husband and kids, she calls for help from her dad, Johnny Halladay, a retired assassin turned chef. While investigating the Macau underworld, Halladay crosses the path of three hitmen, whom he hires to lead him through the particulars of the local triads. The rest of the movie follows the hunt, as Halladay and the men he’s engaged look for the guys who slaughtered Halladay’s family, then look for the guy behind the guys. There’s only one complication: Halladay has a bullet in his brain from an old assignment, and the longer he leads this mission, the harder it is for him to remember why he initiated it in the first place.
To has been making movies about crooks in conflict for decades now, and each one is a little different, filtered through To’s take on some other genre. Here, he and his frequent collaborator Wai Ka-Fai pay homage to the French hitman movie (Halladay’s character “Costello” is even named after Alain Delon’s character in Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samourai), with a passing nod to Christopher Nolan’s Memento in Halladay’s forgetfulness and habit of taking Polaroids of the people he meets. Vengeance is no pulse-quickening potboiler. In keeping with their stoic European inspirations, To and Wai are more interested in subtle gestures and moods, and spend as much time watching people cook as they do watching them shoot at each other. And even the shoot-outs aren’t shot and edited to be kinetic; To focuses more on staging and composition than motion.
But few action directors have an eye as keen as To’s. The action sequences in Vengeance are flat-out gorgeous, from a face-off in a moonlit park filled with campfire smoke to an ambush at a landfill where the gunmen hide behind rolling bales of garbage. To and Wai don’t do much clever or emotionally resonant with Halladay’s amnesia, aside from one climactic gunfight in which the hero needs memory aids to know who to target. But Halladay’s weakness with details suits the world that Vengeance portrays, where each new situation that arises reduces to a simple matter of kill-or-be-killed. That’s why one of Vengeance’s best scenes comes before the action, when Halladay and his employees sit at a picnic table and eye their prey, while children fling around a colorful flying disc. Neither side gets distracted by the food on the grill or the toys whizzing by their heads. They instinctively zero in on each other—tough guys recognizing tough guys.
Key features: A 10-minute making-of featurette.