Reviewed at the 2009 Cannes Film Festival
Though he’s been making films for nearly three decades, it’s only in the last five years that the work of Hong Kong’s Johnnie To has become fashionable at the major European film festivals. His latest, therefore, looks like a somewhat deliberate attempt to court the French market, given that it stars ageing pop-idol-turned-movie-star Johnny Hallyday as a man who arrives in Macao to visit his daughter (Sylvia Testud), who lost her husband and children when gangsters burst, guns blazing, into their apartment during the brief pre-credits sequence. She, having survived the carnage with appalling injuries and barely a single scene left to appear in, asks Costello (for such, a tad unsurprisingly, is his name) to wreak vengeance on the culprits, a task which he, as someone who worked (again a little unsurprisingly) as a hitman before setting himself up in the Champs-Elysées restaurant business, is unusually willing and able to take on.
If indeed there is anything surprising about this cliché-packed genre fare, it’s the degree to which To and his screenwriter Wai Ka-Fai are prepared to indulge their flair for the ludicrous. As Costello employs the services of three (purportedly) likeable hitmen to help him track down and kill the men who offed his son-in-law and grandkids, the film steers consistently clear of anything remotely realistic or gritty, revelling instead in plot developments, dialogue and action sequences as flagrantly absurd as they’re ‘stylish’. Nothing whatsoever rings true: not the cheap Chilean plonk Costello (apparently a great chef and wealthy bon vivant) serves up when he hires his trio of goons, not the bizarre means (involving scouts and stick-on paper flags) by which the villainous Mr Big is entrapped, not the shoot-outs… and most definitely not Hallyday’s face, a strangely elongated, unevenly wrinkled, tiny-eyed affair that barely resembles the appearance of your average human. To call the film cartoon-like would be to do a grave disservice to the majority of comic strips.
That said, it’s far from unenjoyable (though I’m not sure this kind of fluff really warrants a place in Cannes’ main competition). At a fairly pacy108 minutes it doesn’t outlast its welcome, especially when you can feast your eyes on such marvellously idiotic imagery as Hallyday praying (altogether incredibly given his actions throughout the movie) first on a beach and then up to his neck in water. It also looks quite good in a trite, glossy and bombastic kind of way, and there are even a number of funny moments that were actually intended as such. Or so one can only hope.