Friday, January 7, 2011

Vengeance: Or Why I Love Johnnie To

Johnnie To's Vengeance hinges on the edge of perfection. Like most films by To, there is a flawless mix of action, comedy, and brotherhood. Vengeance not only exposes To's cinematic prowess, but shows that he can direct characters with rich complexities with minimal dialogue. With every glance or subtle twitch of the eye the audience already knows what the character is thinking. Vengeance relies on this because the protagonist is in a predicament. His daughters family is killed by a hit squad and he is charged to avenge them.

There is a problem though: his memory works in spurts of a few hours and sometimes minutes. Costello, played by Johnny Hallyday must take polaroids of people and write notes about them like Nolan's Memento. For a while Costello even forgets why he is even in China, which calls into question what is vengeance for? Costello doesn't even remember his daughters family being slaughtered. So why should he avenge them?

To's Confucian themes of brotherhood and fatherhood answer this question throughout the movie. Vengeance is not a personal vendetta or selfish action, it is an action which carries the weight of justice. Whether one remembers why they must avenge matters not. The importance relies on the fact that debt must be paid. Johnny To could have taken a nihilistic approach like most Hollywood films and had the thirst to kill be inspired by a relative and emotional based sense of justice. Instead To reminds the audience that our actions carry weight in the world and vengeance in a sense needs to be done to balance the world. A sort of blow your brains out karma.

Watching Vengeance is yet another breath of fresh air in contrast to the state of action films coming out of Hollywood. Instead of over budgeted messy action sequence's, To gives the audience a graceful dance of well thought-out shots and perfect visual storytelling. To trades the frantic, hand held nauseating style of y2k's action films for a reserved style, which holds on shots and lets the audience react instead of constantly guess what they just saw. In Vengeance there is a gun fight in a park which seems like a violent ballet with mixed slow motion, extremely wide shots, blended with a dance of bullets, and mist filled exit wounds. To's visual style continues to evolved and inspire awe in those who watch at his craft.
Overall I must say get out there and buy all of Johnnie To's films, skip the rental, but they are hard to find so please rent them and support pure and true action at its finest.


  1. A most excellent review. Agree 100%! It's hard to decide whether or not I like this or Exiled more - both are brilliantly shot, well-scripted, action pieces with terrific characters.

    I was most impressed by the amount of information that was communicated without dialogue, as you mentioned. Of course, the justice theme is also great.

    It seems very tough to make an action film that's exciting, beautiful, philosophical, and powerful all at the same time, but Johnny To makes it look easy!

  2. Nice review, it warms my heart to see Vengeance receiving the credit it deserves, unfortunately even many of To's fans see the film as being To lite which is pretty baffling to me.