Revenge films occupy enough time and space to fill a year’s worth of regular viewing. From Charles Bronson to Steven Segal to Liam Neeson, the genre canon consists of some extremely brutal and intense viewing. With each new movie that takes on a similar plot, it makes it more and more difficult to provide a different angle and reason to watch. Jonnie To’s Vengeance accomplishes this through disciplined action sequences and a stoic performance from Johnny Hallyday.
Hallyday plays Costello, a chef who arrives in Hong Kong after his daughter’s husband and children are murdered and she’s left brutally injured. With little to go on other than the feeling of immense anger, Costello sets out to hunt down his daughter’s attackers. In doing so he teams with a trio of assassins, making for a quirky dynamic akin to old Westerns where sheriffs take on deputies they have little in common with other than the cause of justice.
In fact, the entire film is much like a modern Western with Costello being the stranger bent on finding justice in an unjust underworld, posse in tow. Even though he is not above killing, Costello and his company do follow a code. His own family might have been viciously attacked, but in the film’s most memorable scene, Costello shows why he’s different. After tracking down some gangsters to a park, he could have exacted some revenge instantly. However with wives and children there also, enjoying the day, Costello and his posse go up the hill and sit in plain sight for the entire day. The gangsters go as far as sending their enemies food via young children. For that point and time the war is put on hold, a code of honor and inevitability acting as glue. But as night falls and the families go home, it’s all business as both sides pull out their guns in an effort to settle their scores. It’s a memorable and powerful sequence with To’s patience to hold back the violence, even if momentarily, mirroring that of his characters. It makes the whole thing much more powerful and meaningful.
To does a fantastic job of providing a good sense of style and structure to the numerous action scenes, but they’re not over the top or cartoonish. They draw attention but they also show some restraint. The result is a film that never delves into the cartoonish or absurd but rather maintains a high level of intensity and purpose.
The final act seems to meander around a little bit, but even still Vengeance is one of the more dynamic action films I’ve seen in some time. Not only does it offer a different spin on a somewhat tired genre story, it offers style and flair but not to the point where they become a distraction.