We’re far enough away from the golden age of Hong Kong John Woo action excess that a little nostalgia is warranted, and Johnnie To’s “Vengeance” is meant to fondly recall every operatic slow-mo shoot-em-up of the era, though until that sinks in, it just looks ungainly. Singer Johnny Hallyday, who’s often shorthand summed-up as France’s Elvis equivalent, plays Francois Costello, a Parisian restaurant owner with a dark past and real talent for wearing a Burberry trench coat with the collar popped. He comes to Macao to avenge his daughter (played by Sylvie Testud, who despite top billing has maybe five minutes of screen time), who was severely injured in a hit on her Chinese husband that also resulted in the death of their children. “It’s a miracle she survived,” the doctor tells him, and it really is, as in the flashback we see her getting four shotgun blasts to the chest — characters in “Vengeance” handle bullet wounds uncommonly well.
Costello enlists the help of three hitmen (To regulars Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Lam Suet and Lam Ka Tung) he serendipitously meets when a job brings them to his hotel hallway, and from there lifetime loyalty is as easy as the exchange of a wad of euros, some spaghetti and manly bonding over weaponry. “They killed your daughter’s family, we killed your enemies, now we’re best friends,” Lam Suet’s character summarizes at one point for the benefit of anyone who arrived late. There are two singularly stupid-smart gun battles, one in the woods as the full moon peeks in and out of the clouds and the other in a garbage dump, with hoards of Triad enforcers sheltering themselves by rolling giant blocks of compressed garbage in front of them. Costello and the hitmen communicate in their common language, English, with which they’re different degrees of uncomfortable, but Hallyday looks like waxwork in the same unblemished suit from scene to scene and acts just as impassive — his role is chiefly to stand, imposingly — so the awkward dialogue delivery isn’t discordant. Late in the game, Costello’s briefly mentioned brain damage comes into play, and he has to navigate, “Memento”-style, with polaroids and notes, leading to a farcical but bloody climatic showdown. The sloppiness is part of the fun, though it’s adds up to less than the sum of its parts. To’s better at deconstructing than deference.