Thursday, May. 14, 2009

Vengeance: From Paris, with Guns

What would parents do to protect or avenge their children? Anything, everything, say three prominent entries at the Cannes Film Festival. Vengeance is the second.

Don't the characters in Johnnie To action films know never to look through the peephole of a door when a stranger knocks? They're sure to get blasted to perdition, and out of the movie before the opening credits. That's what happens to the Chinese husband of a French woman (Sylvie Testud) in this so-so crime drama from To — whose The Mission, Full-Time Killer and Election made him the leading director of post-handover Hong Kong — and his writing partner Wai Ka-fai. The man and his two small kids are killed; the French woman is left for dead; and her restaurateur father, Francis Costello (perennial French pop star Johnny Hallyday), has come to Macau, the Chinese Vegas, to execute the goons responsible for the slaughter. (See the top 10 Cannes Film Festival movies of all time.)

First Papa has to find some guys with guns who'll help him locate the really bad guys with guns. Fortunately for him, in To's Macau there are apparently so many hit squads knocking off faithless women in hotel rooms that Hallyday can walk down a corridor, observe the aftermath of a contract killing and hire the perps on the spot without suspecting they might be the ones who did in his daughter's family. The scene then shifts to Hong Kong, where minutes-long gun battles can occur without interesting the police or waking the neighbors. Ah, who cares? In To-town, narrative logic is for wimps. The important thing is to get from one explosion of heavy artillery to the next, and to splash the wide screen with the fireworks of machismo.

Hallyday's pickup team of gunmen comprises three of the most esteemed character actors in Hong Kong's action cinema: reptile-cool Anthony Wong, from the infamous mad-monster movie The Untold Story, and two To regulars, smoothie Lam Ka-tung and fatty Lam Suet. (The gang boss who ordered the hit is played by another To veteran, dimpled Simon Yam.) It's an endearingly familiar bunch, engaged in capers and double-crosses that are by now a little too familiar.

What fun there is comes from studying the weathered, saturnine face and sky-gray eyes of Hallyday, 65, who has logged nearly half a century of international rock stardom. (He appeared on Ed Sullivan's show in 1962, had Jimi Hendrix as his opening act in 1966 and, on his 2007 album Le Coeur d'un Homme, sang a song written for him by Bono.) The man can hold a mic, a concert stage or the movie screen. The tangled lines on his face could be a map of all the roads he's taken; like the best mature stars, in close-up he reveals his character's past, and fate, before ever uttering a word. As a man doubly estranged — not understanding Cantonese, and being forced to speak English — Hallyday gives Vengeance a gravity it otherwise lacks. One glance from him is more menacing than a hundred triad bullets.

See pictures of the Cannes 2009 red carpet.

See pictures of movie costumes.