By David Phelps
Like Bresson, Melville, or Boetticher, Johnnie To makes movies about men surveying their possibilities to do a job, then doing it as neatly as possible—To’s method too, diagramming characters in a space, one at a time, then letting them fly at each other. But a To character could never make a To movie: where To’s heroes subjugate all thought to action, and abandon all emotion to the plots they plan (very Boetticher), To’s as shameless a toughie as Sam Fuller, who’d also write in kids to tell everyone what the hard-liner heroes should be feeling, and turn characters into each other’s martyrs just to show what good friends they were. Every gesture in a To is a monument to man’s endless duty to his job and family against mob bosses and wind machines—even the borrowings are totally transparent. As François Costello in Vengeance, Johnny Hallyday shares Le Samourai’s Jeff Costello’s last name, fedora, and lifestyle as nothing more than a hitman’s daily tasks. Not just a man without a past, he’s a man who lost his past, an amnesiac out to revenge his family’s murder. The identity doesn’t matter (he’s Johnny Hallyday). To, as usual, takes it for granted that the Langian eye for an eye till everyone’s blind bit makes enemies almost identical vehicles for the exact same drives. What matters—Hallyday, lost his family, lost his past, a Frenchman speaking English in Macao (language a standard divide in To)—is the ways strangers, estranged from the world around them, from themselves, come together, usually at night, as kindred spirits. Sometimes as friends, more often to blow each other’s brains out.
Where Jean-Pierre Melville’s world is a marble checkerboard of chess pieces making their move, To’s mechanisms of fate work in ballet: the slo-mo that makes even walking look like predetermined choreography, the barely (but perpetually) spinning camera that never sees them as fixed figures against the landscape, and most of all, To’s Tati-like shifts in perspective that displace protagonists to the background and bring background characters to the front. No character occupies a space in To, as they do in the shoot-offs of Ford, Mann, etc.—To cares about their trajectory through it, the foreplay, as in ballet, to the moment of contact as the spaces practically seem to swirl around them. Both Vengeance’s setpieces show space in total flux: one, in some desert just outside of Macao where the trash blows like a million tumbleweeds and gangster’s try to crouch behind it; the other, a campground showdown as the moonlight fades in and out while the gangsters wait for light to shoot a bit of tinpan poetry worthy of Michael Powell. Everyone is relative to one another, but in both, the men’s movement, whatever it is, seems as straight and determined—or predetermined—as they are. It’s all dance.
And because Vengeance thinks its total corniness is profound, it probably is. For To, fate’s not just the machine that makes men cogs in a cycle of vengeance. It’s also the force that makes three mobster stooges (To’s sense of duty: one of them plucking a bullet from his fat friend’s ass) turn against their boss, even though he owns the city, to help a Frenchman who never says anything to them and is slowly forgetting their names and carrying around Polaroids to identify the men he’s trying to kill. To’s force is in his improbabilities—men’s self-set fates carried to their full, preposterous conclusions. They kill each other because they have to, and like each other just because they do, like Hawks characters taking on the system as a good excuse to hang out with each other. If not one of To’s worst films, Vengeance is one of his best.