December, 2010, Thriller


Johnnie To is probably the most prolific action film director whose work you’ve never seen. Based in Hong Kong where he collaborates with screenwriter Ka-Fai-Wai through a production company with the unlikely name of Milky Way Productions, the 55 yr. old To has produced 61 movies, 54 of which he’s also directed. Working in various genres, he’s become the most widely recognized filmmaker in the former British colony. I first came across his work 4 or 5 years ago when his prize-winning duo (Election & Election 2) played in New York. An examination of crime syndicates rivaling The Godfather trilogy, Election and its companion piece featured compelling performances, slick action sequences and brilliant cinematography.

In this film, To joins forces with French singer/actor Johnny Hallyday, another entertainer little known in the U.S.  Often described as the French Elvis Presley, Hallyday sold over 100 million records in France alone during the heyday of early rock and roll. With a countenance that rivals the Rolling Stones Keith Richards for sheer vivid dissipation, Hallyday parlayed his singing career into film work more than 20 years ago.  He starred in Man on the Train (2002) one of the finest movies of the past decade. So what does this unique duo provide here? A violent revenge film which manages to mix dazzling camerawork with the sentimental worldview of so many of Hong Kong’s most successful writer/directors.

Hallyday plays Costello, a retired cop turned Parisian chef/restaurant owner who travels to Hong Kong to seek the killers of his daughter, her husband and their two pre-school children. Their deaths open the film with To’s subversive mixture of poignancy laced with gore, bloodshed against the backdrop of a lushly photographed rainstorm. (The director follows this up with a nocturnal gun battle in a city park, again pairing natural beauty with blunt violence.)

When the Hong Kong police fail to develop any leads on the assassins, Costello ingeniously observes a trio of hired killers (Kwai, Chu & Fat Lok) at work and promptly hires them to find and eliminate the men who killed his family. Thus do three despicable hit men become heroes. They take Costello’s money and, honor bound to fulfill  their contract, embark on a bullet-laden journey to track and take revenge on Costello’s behalf. The body count nearly depopulates the city and the storyline is hoary with age, but To’s visual sense consistently fascinates; pieces of paper float lazily through the air at the city dump where illegal guns and ammunition are  stored, a gunfight which chases the hit men down a fire escape in the middle of a downpour is alternately seem from ground level and an adjoining rooftop; the deaths of Costello’s family are presented in flashback with shots that amplify their initial terror of with telling visual explanations of how the crimes were committed.

Hallyday and his supporting cast are so laconic they hardly speak to each other; when they do, the dialogue seems lifted directed from those hard-boiled American film noir murder mysteries that dominated the 1930’s and ‘40s. Never have so few fired so many bullets with so little conversation…

It’s all nonsense of course, the cinematic version of a violent comic-book laced with sentimentalism - - but To’s made quite a reputation as a master of a certain style of filmmaking that prizes visual fluidity and kinetic action above  every other aesthetic value and this film represents another example of his unapologetic mastery of that approach.

Unfortunately, a movie like this really should only be seen on a full-sized screen,  so unless you’re lucky enough to be on 6th Avenue & 3rd Street in Manhattan  sometime over the next few days, you’re unlikely to have the opportunity to enjoy this one as it was meant to  be seen.

The Verdict? Big, bloody, and visually striking.  

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