About halfway through Vengeance, we find ourselves in an empty field. Via an overhead shot we see a dozen or so gigantic, cubical blocks being shoved forward like chess pieces. These blocks are actually giant bundles of compacted garbage from a dump we've never seen before. Their origin doesn't matter. What matters is that our heroes are behind some of the blocks. Thugs are behind the others. They all have guns. And before we know it, a ballet of gunfire ensues, sending arterial sprays into the atmosphere as bodies are felled with cartoonish repetition.
We never return to this field.
When the Coen brothers accepted their long-overdue Oscar for No Country for Old Men, they thanked their audience and the Academy for allowing them to play in their own part of the sandbox. Nutso Hong Kong director Johnnie To plays in a sandbox entirely his own, one where broken glass and bullets peek through the grains, and where logic is as unwelcome as piss from a neighborhood cat. If John Woo is the godfather of gun-fu cinema and bullet operas, To is his bastard grandchild who refuses to take his Ritalin, an unhinged filmmaker who transitions from focused gangster noir like Election and campy psychedelic freakouts such as Heroic Trio with gleeful abandon.
Vengeance finds itself somewhere between the grit of the former and the insanity of the latter. It finds geriatric crooner Johnny Hallyday—the French Elvis, as many know him—teaming up with ruthless hit men to lay waste to the mobsters responsible for maiming his daughter (Sylvie Testud, whose presence is befuddling) and killing her family. Of course, this being a To film, there's a twist—a bullet lodged in Hallyday's brain, which erases his memory. He has no recollection of what he's doing or why he's doing it, so he simply lets his guns and scowls do the talking.
The ensuing carnage is incredible, with gouts of bright magenta blood filling the air like macabre clouds, and bodies flying like confetti. To, not impervious to the derivative nature of his age-old plot device, amps up the style to Soderberghian levels, with enough throbbing music and slow-motion shots of sharp-dressed badasses being badass to give Danny Ocean pause. To may not have a lot to say, but he certainly says it loudly, and in doing so offers the kind of whiz-bang sleaze Hollywood so often forgets we crave.