Johnnie To knows that he’s not making great art here, and he’s okay with that. There is honor in well-crafted disposable entertainment. Stylish trash.
“Vengeance” makes a half-hearted attempt at being art. The main character, played by French pop star Johnny something or other, is a former assassin with a bullet lodged in his brain. The doctors have told him that this will someday, inevitably, cause memory loss, but it hasn’t happened yet. He lives in constant expectation, snapping Polaroids of things he it would be important to remember. One of the chief things he must remember is that his daughter’s family was brutally assaulted by hit men; his grandchildren and son-in-law are dead, and his daughter lies in the ICU, whispering “avenge me,” which he promises to do.
But he loses his memory right in the middle of seeking vengeance. And this is where Johnnie To could choose to be artsy. Is revenge satisfying for a man who can’t remember that he’s been wronged? If he no longer carries around the pain and rage that was a result of his family’s assault, what’s going to motivate him to keep pursuing the elusive killer? Is there some way his soul will carry the scar of injustice done, even if his mind can’t recall the injustice? Christopher Nolan’s great film “Memento” wrestles with these same questions in compelling fashion, but Johnnie To just kind of shrugs at them – there is one very brief, very shallow conversation about the subject, and then it’s back to work.
But that’s okay, because while there are plenty of films dedicated to exploring the dark side of quests for revenge, there are only a handful of film with action scenes as graceful, stylish, and fun to watch as the ones in this film. There are lots of gunfights here, and not a single one that is unimaginative. The centerpiece takes place at a landfill; the good guys roll bales of garbage at the bad guys, hiding behind them as they shoot. Debris floats through the air, and I kid you not, it looks just as graceful as the doves in a John Woo movie. Johnnie To has taken trash, and made it stylish. It’s quite a feat. I’m impressed.