Johnny Hallyday has a fascinating, crazy face. He’s old and rich and famous enough that of course he’s had work done: His eyes are unnaturally tight, and they have that weird skin-stretched-back thing that Sylvester Stallone has these days. But those eyes themselves were already something before any doctors got close to them: They’re an unnaturally light shade of blue, and they seem to dance even when his face is completely motionless, which is most of the time in Jonnie To’s impressionistic 2009 shoot-’em-up Vengeance. Other than those eyes, though, Hallyday has a grizzled old-man face, with all these crags and wrinkles and lines. He’s also got a goatee that looks more painted than grown. There’s just a lot going on.
Watching Vengeance, we spend a whole lot of time staring at that face. Hallyday plays a stranger in Hong Kong looking for the men who shot his daughter and killed her husband and kids. He doesn’t speak the language, doesn’t know his way around. But he’s seen some things—his backstory comes out subtly and quietly over the course of the movie—and he’s resourceful enough to figure out how to hire a squad of hitmen and go to work. The movie communicates a lot of its story through long pauses and significant glances, and Hallyday is able to convey a whole lot—the weight of his character’s situation, mostly, coupled with the idea that he might enjoy this revenge stuff a little too much—without saying much of anything. That’s something. Hallyday isn’t even an actor by trade: He’s France’s longest-running and best-selling rock star, a big deal in places where they don’t speak English. The idea that a 64-year-old rocker found himself headlining a Hong Kong action movie is already pretty weird. The fact that he’s great in it is almost too much to believe. But he absolutely is.
Vengeance is actually a co-production between a French film studio and a Hong Kong one. Johnnie To had been making these awesomely somber and poetic gangster movies, taking everything stylized about John Woo and making it quieter and more deadpan. The results were often hits in Hong Kong, but they also, understandably, found an audience on the European festival circuit. Some French producers had approached To about making a movie inspired by Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 deadpan-hitman classic Le Samourai, which is an important movie in Hong Kong, as it was a key inspiration for Woo’s The Killer. In fact, Le Samourai star Alain Delon was in talks to star in Vengeance; Hallyday only got the role when Delon turned it down. Moreover, Hallyday’s character is named Costello, the same name as Delon’s character in Le Samourai; it’s not that hard to imagine that it’s the same character, years later, after living a whole life offscreen.
Stylistically, Vengeance sits somewhere between John Woo and Jim Jarmusch, another guy with a heavy Melville influence. To hits on some of the same themes Woo loves so much: honorable hitmen, criminals willing to give their lives for each other, the brotherhood that comes out of shared extreme circumstances. But he loves long, lingering, significant silences as much as Jarmusch does, and in his shootouts, To doesn’t give us coats billowing or bodies flying through the air. He films his guys standing up, barely taking cover, blankly firing round after round into each other and barely wincing when they get hit.
To’s shootouts can be great; Vengeance has a weirdly lovely one at a garbage dump, where all these assassins are pushing giant cubes of compacted trash and using them as mobile shelters. But he cares less about sending bullets flying and more about the quiet scenes where people are getting ready to kill each other. The buildups of tension mean more than the moments of violent release. And To even finds a novel way to play with the whole vengeance-is-futile thing that every revenge movie has to include somewhere: Without spoiling anything, it asks if revenge is still something worth pursuing even if there’s absolutely no chance that the avenger will get any satisfaction out of completing his mission.
There’s a great early scene where Hallyday has cooked dinner for the three hitmen he’s just hired, and he lets it slip that he knows a few things about guns. Soon, he and one of the hitmen somehow come to a wordless agreement that they should race to see who can assemble a pistol faster while blindfolded: They do it all through body language, and it’s a key bonding moment that leads to these hitmen improbably becoming Hallyday’s best friends. Later on, there’s a scene where two groups of hitmen are about to light into each other, but circumstances intervene, and they end up talking instead. They’re clipped and professional with each other, but they treat each other like human beings. There’s no operatic emotion in this stuff; the movie trusts you to figure out how these people feel without melodramatically pounding the point home.
A lot of this happens in English, since that’s the one language that the Frenchman and the guys from Macau all speak. And that’s cool; it’s interesting see these guys figuring out ways to talk to each other in a language that’s likely not the first for any of them. But Vengeance is one of those movies that tells us most of what we need to know without words. It has these vivid, meticulously shot scenes of Hallyday skulking through Macau’s neon walkways, or of dangerous men coming face-to-face in badly-lit hallways, or of leaves blowing in every direction during a shootout. And it gets a whole lot of its narrative power from focusing on one of the weirder faces you’ve ever seen.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one.
Previous installments: Payback | The Good, the Bad, the Weird | The Professional | Supercop | The Man With the Iron Fists 2 | Flash Point | The Way of the Dragon | Skyfall | Chocolate | Dirty Mary Crazy Larry | Iron Monkey | XXX | Headhunters | The Running Man | Project A | Homefront | Drug War | Robocop | Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon | Blood and Bone | Man of Tai Chi | Bloodsport | Battle Royale | Total Recall | Django Unchained | El Mariachi | Tombstone| Fearless | Red Dawn | Blue Ruin | The Man From Nowhere | Face/Off | The Chinese Connection | Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning | District B13 | Uncommon Valor| The Heroic Trio | Safe | Mad Max | Ip Man | Big Trouble in Little China | Sonatine | Mission: Impossible—Ghost Protocol | Ong-Bak: Muay Thai Warrior | Charley Varrick | Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky | Dredd | 13 Assassins | Death Wish 3 | The Legend of Drunken Master