Mason D’s review published on Letterboxd:
I had high hopes for this one, I’m not gonna lie. After part one of my Johnnie To movie night double feature, Election, didn’t land particularly well, I was hoping Vengeance would deliver an old-fashioned, badass revenge flick to at least keep things exciting. Vengeance comes SO close to being the movie I wanted it to be, but it just doesn’t quite work out.
Vengeance follows an aging French chef (Johnny Hallyday) who’s come to Hong Kong to investigate and hopefully avenge the grisly murders of his son-in-law and grandchildren. Along the way, our protagonist enlists the help of a group of hit men (led by an always excellent Anthony Wong) to find his family’s killers, embroiling himself with some high level triads along the way.
What hurts this movie most immediately is, unfortunately, Johnny Hallyday in the lead. Aside from being, generously, one of the weirdest looking motherfuckers I’ve ever seen, Hallyday fails to emote in any meaningful way at almost every turn. This is a man who has lost his family while in the midst of a deeply troubling personal crisis as well as being a sharply out of place stranger in a foreign land and yet his performance lacks any pain or anger. Me and my confidants in movie watching couldn’t help but speculate as to how much better this movie could’ve been had someone like Jean Reno played the lead instead of Hallyday and it ultimately leaves this film deeply lacking.
Inversely, any scene featuring Anthony Wong and his gang of hitmen ends up being a highlight. Wong is a welcome presence nearly everywhere he goes and he brings a bulk of what makes this film work to the table. Wong and his gang illicit feelings of To’s earlier (and much better) film, Exiled, which in itself echoes some of John Woo’s best work. Without these guys, Vengeance would be much worse off.
Unfortunately this film is a structural and storytelling misfire as well. There’s a reveal made toward this film’s halfway point that comes far out of left field and completely hijacks the film’s narrative in such an unconvincing and ham fisted way. There are a number of shark jumping moments sprinkled throughout Vengeance but it’s the mid-point twist that takes the cake and railroads Vengeance into some hokey, hackneyed-ass bullshit territory.
There’s plenty of positive points here on a technical level, for sure. The cinematography is absolutely beautiful, the use of color in particular is stunning and it makes for a film that’s a delight to look at. The action scenes are also generally pretty good, sparing the unsightly digital blood squibs and the entire final showdown. Those positives are just drowned out by a largely poorly written story with a largely ill-advisedly cast lead actor. Vengeance is Johnnie To in uncommonly poor form.