Johnnie To is a Hong Kong action director best known for his 2005 film Election and its 2006 sequel. His 2008 film Sparrow was light on plot but fairly bled style from every corner of the frame; his latest effort, Vengeance, has just as much visual charm but lacks not only a fully-fleshed story but also the kinetic, brightly-coloured spur-of-the-moment energy that was present throughout Sparrow.
Vengeance follows a French chef who vows to seek revenge for the brutal murder of his daughter and her two young children. He hires three Mafioso to track down the killers, and the story oscillates from Macau to Hong Kong and back. The film’s star exudes a certain Gallic sartorial sensibility, and it’s no accident that he shares a surname (Costello) with the protagonist of one of the best—and most stylish—films of all time, Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Samouraï. (In fact, the star of that film, Alain Delon, was initially attached to this film but left citing “creative differences” with To—stock-standard movie-talk for the two not getting along.)
Into the lead role stepped Johnny Hallyday, a French actor with an impressive back catalogue—if a litany of B-movies (among them The Pink Panther 2) counts as impressive. It’s not so much that the script is bad in and of itself, it’s that Hallyday’s delivery of much of it—English dialogue attempted in a somewhat snooty French accent—is at times untenable. It doesn’t help that To returns to his apparent standby third act set-up: a rainy street scene at night, featuring the balletic interplay of men under umbrellas shooting at one another, and shooting one another puzzled looks.
This exact same scene worked better in Sparrow because there was less of the second kind of shooting, and because that film took itself less seriously and was better-planned—both in pre-production (script) and execution (blocking & camerawork). Even though he’s rounded up an impressive cast of actors, including Anthony Wong (Infernal Affairs), To does little but have them skirt the film’s sidelines, and as a result the film quickly becomes tiresome—just another Hong Kong shoot-’em-up action spectacular with nothing substantial at its core.