Johnnie To's Vengeance fills a niche with the precision of an assassin's bullet. That it doesn't do much beyond that, offering little in the way of introspection or resonance, is hardly the fault of the film. Hitmen kill people and To typically makes movies about men of a certain stripe who are embedded in the criminal world. The violence is cool and stylized, culminating in red clouds of mist, while the plots, often conceived by To collaborator Wai Ka-fai, tend to twitch a little before either succumbing to an overage of complexities or settling into a weary mix of vague and basic. Regardless, the formula succeeds time and again. Few filmmakers working today produce such a consistent and prolific output as Johnnie To. It may take years to critically parse through his career at this rate, and whether he's an heir apparent to J.P. Melville, Sam Peckinpah and Michael Mann or simply an entertaining director of genre fare can be better sorted out then.
Vengeance adds a French element to the To universe, namely lead actor Johnny Hallyday. A shocking gunshot blast occurs in the first scene when the man we later learn is Hallyday's son-in-law is murdered while standing behind his own front door. Hallyday, playing a restaurant owner with an undisclosed past, rushes to the side of his daughter (Sylvie Testud) after her family has been killed and the three men responsible assumed she too was dead. She non-verbally requests revenge and Hallyday promises as much. He stumbles into a scenario where three other hired killers (played by To regulars Anthony Wong, Gordon Lam and Lam Suet) will become allies for a price. A slight twist comes into play later on that propels the plot forward and ups the potential body count. It's minor, predictable stuff but the intended purpose is still served.
That doesn't, unfortunately, allow the film quite enough in the way of chewing material beyond the bang bang. Vengeance feels like a slow motion walk down the path of death. It's neon glow and light shining through windows and rain drops on umbrellas. Hails of bullets are an excuse to break up the monotony rather than forge novel directions in the plot. If you like this sort of thing then, well, you'll like this sort of thing. No complaints on that front. Genre filmmaking can too often get pushed to the side for essentially being exactly what it should be and, in that regard, Vengeance is a smashing success. It absolutely feels like a nice, shiny band of killers movie. There's no discounting how well the movie works on its own terms. Again and again, To has proven to be a master of this field. He's expanded a bit at times, notably with the more nuanced Mad Detective, but the director generally seems content to plow his trade in roughly the same frequency and to do it with the same sort of capable craftsmanship shown by many of his protagonists.
So while it doesn't seem fair to heavily criticize Vengeance for basically adhering to the expected formula, considering how well the parts do align on screen, there are a few minor quibbles still worth mentioning. Hallyday's acting in English is awkward and he's hardly alone. Though the film is often in Cantonese and also occasionally has some French being spoken, the English language tends to get used as a happy medium quite a bit and hardly anyone speaking it is adept in translating his or her acting skills over when need be. This is painful at times for native English speakers. Beyond that, Sylvie Testud is completely wasted when on screen, and the Memento-like wrinkle given to Hallyday's character feels needlessly contrived. Thus, the delicate details take a hit upon closer observation but the major aspects of the film emerge fairly unscathed. It's a solid effort, and a worthy addition to the ever-impressive resume of Johnnie To. We're in comfortable territory here. If you want something better then look at To's influences like Melville and Mann. Return to Vengeance and its ilk, though, as hardly anyone else is making such accomplished, testosterone-drenched fare nowadays.
The R2 PAL disc released by Optimum is dual-layered and sports a decent transfer. The aspect ratio is 2.35:1 and enhanced for widescreen televisions. Some artifacting litters the screen but detail isn't bad. Colors look accurate and true. There's no damage in the print, only some mild noise. Similarly to Matt's opinion of the Blu-ray, this doesn't come through as particularly impressive but it is serviceable.
A choice of two audio tracks allows the listener to pick between a Dolby Digital 5.1 option and a stereo 2.0. The language is a mixture of English and Cantonese with moments of French thrown in for good measure. Gun shots are surprisingly staid and dialogue could have used a bump in volume, I thought. Minor annoyances, perhaps, as the audio is clean and doesn't present any significant concerns. English subtitles are provided as an option, but they do not cover the dialogue actually spoken in English. They are white in color.
Extra features are not this release's selling point. Only a cursory making-of featurette (10:19), containing interviews with writer, director and some of the actors, and a trailer (1:34) have been included.