I was only marginally impressed with a recent viewing of Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s “PTU” from 2003, but blown away by his latest, “Vengeance.” It’s masterfully shot and masterfully told, grafting the classic Western revenge plot onto a gritty, urban, modern-day backdrop, making it one of the very best crime stories of the year.
Johnny Hallyday “ kind of the Harvey Keitel of France “ is Francis Costello, a chef with an expert touch in the kitchen, but a huge memory problem. When his daughter is nearly killed in a home invasion that leaves her husband and two children dead, Francis visits her in the hospital and promises, yes, vengeance.
To that end, he seeks help, and finds it a trio of Asian hit men. Francis has to take their photos with a Polaroid and write their names on the pics with a Sharpie so he can remember who they are. In exchange for their services, he promises them his restaurant and house in Paris.
Finding who performed the hit and ordered it is easy; taking them out is another. Once Francis learns the name of the bad guy in charge, he writes his name on the gun with which Francis hopes to kill him.
This being a Hong Kong film, shootouts are intricately choreographed set pieces that play out like ballets in slow motion. One’s at a park under the light of the moon; the other, in a dump, where square bundles of trash are used for cover. And, like John Woo and his damned doves, an awful lot of stuff falls and flies around as bullets whiz by: leaves and debris, respectively.
But “Vengeance” isn’t loaded with action; it works so well because Francis is such a sympathetic character, and his handicap makes him more interesting than the movies’ average wronged man. With streets caked in rain and lit with neon, the city setting is practically a character in itself.
To seems to be reaching for a wider audience beyond the HK faithful with this one, and not just because its players speak English, French and Cantonese in any given scene. It’s a flat-out wonderful slice of filmmaking that may remind you of Michael Mann’s crime epic. One can imagine the material being mined for an inevitable American remake; is Liam Neeson game? “Rod Lott