Johnnie To and Johnny Hallyday have a bloody good time in “Vengeance,” a smoothly executed revenge thriller that finds one of Hong Kong’s genre masters in assured action-movie form. Apart from the novelty of casting a Gallic rock ‘n’ roll icon as an aging ex-hitman exacting payback with the help of some Macau mobsters, 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.
Wai Ka-fai’s script gets down to its bloody business in the opening minutes, as a Chinese man and his French wife (Sylvie Testud) are gunned down in their Macau home. The violence — accompanied by the smoky, stylized bloodspray that’s become a To trademark — dispels the mood of domestic bliss with shocking suddenness. From there, “Vengeance” descends into a darkly beautiful Triad gang underworld, where every confrontation must be preceded by much slo-mo brooding and sizing up of one’s competition, often through sunglasses.
In a poignant but amusingly tongue-in-cheek scene, the wife, who has miraculously survived the attack, is visited by her father Costello (Hallyday), who promises to avenge her. Cutting a dangerously debonair figure in black hat and overcoat, Hallyday immediately draws all eyes, his magnificently grave, weathered features suggesting a lifetime of hardened criminality and brutal life experience. But there’s also something about him — perhaps the charming fact that his character, who hasn’t used a gun in 20 years, now works as a chef in Paris — that has a way of putting the viewer at ease. As coolly taciturn killers go, Hallyday’s Costello is a pleasure to spend an hour and 45 minutes with.
The first of the film’s suave setpieces brings Costello into contact with three assassins (played by To regulars Anthony Wong, Lam Suet and Lam Ka-tung) in the employ of a vulgar, decadent crime boss, Fung (another To standby, Simon Yam). Once Costello enlists the trio to help him hunt down his quarry, “Vengeance” settles into a wry, almost comfortably familiar buddy-picture rhythm, as the four men meticulously reconstruct the initial crime (precisely edited by Cheng Siu-keung), compare weaponry over a hot meal, and quietly consider the possibility of honor among hitmen.
As the action shifts from Macau to Hong Kong, Wai’s script borrows a few twists from “Memento” and “The Memory of a Killer”: It becomes apparent that Costello is experiencing the rapid onset of amnesia, imbuing his mission with fresh urgency. The final scenes, which include a lovely beachside interlude and a nighttime showdown in the streets of Hong Kong, are at once sad, elegiac and strangely joyous.
“Vengeance” isn’t exactly subversive, and it more than keeps the promise bluntly extended by its title. But it would be a mistake to overlook the ideas that occasionally penetrate its sleek surface. To acknowledges that the seven professional murderers onscreen (four good, three bad, for those who care to delineate) are in many ways interchangeable. He also foregrounds the desire to protect one’s children as the overriding motivation that governs the film’s universe, not only setting the plot in motion but unexpectedly complicating it along the way.
Hallyday’s craggy charisma stands out yet never overpowers his Chinese co-stars, with whom he blends effortlessly. To’s widescreen mise-en-scene also merits top billing, as the helmer manipulates light, image and sound — at one point even orchestrating a gory shootout by selective moonlight — to bravura effect.