Johnny Hallyday in Johnnie To's 'Vengeance'

Shootouts and gun battles are so commonplace in action movies that we know exactly what to expect: an exchange of gunfire, cross-cutting between the good guys and the bad guys, spurts of blood, ammunition running out, the bad guys falling down, the villain saved for execution until the last beat, when the good guy can teach him a lesson with a clever wisecrack. (See The Expendables, etc.) The end.

Yet director Johnnie To keeps coming up with new ways to stage bullet ballets that approach poetry, even as they make the deadly consequences readily apparent. Vengeance, his latest film to hit America, is a splendid example. (IFC Films opened it theatrically in San Francisco this weekend, and it's available via various on demand cable systems, as well as import Blu-ray and DVD.) Our own David Ehrlich highlighted it as one of the 5 Reasons Not to Avoid Movie Theaters This August.

To's filmmaking career began in Hong Kong in the 1980s; one of his early successes was the police drama The Big Heat (co-directed with Andrew Kam Yeung-Wah), which begins with a drill bit piercing a hand. The film features a heart-pumping pedestrian chase across Hong Kong and a gunfight "crudely defined by drenching the proceedings in alternating red and blue light," as I've written elsewhere. The relentless action builds to a brutal climax.

Johnnie To, on the set of 'Vengeance'To displayed his versatility throughout the late 80s and mid 90s, making memorable melodramas like All About Ah-Long (with Chow Yun Fat as a conflicted father), comedies like Justice, My Foot! (with Stephen Chow), and lush action fantasies like The Heroic Trio (with the dazzling dream team of Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, and Michelle Yeoh).

Along with filmmaking partner Wai Ka-Fai, To formed Milkyway Image in 1996, an independent production company that reeled off an incredible series of low-budget crime films. To was reacting, in part, to the exodus of local talent to Hollywood ahead of the handover of Hong Kong back to Mainland Chinese rule in 1997. But the films were, perhaps, too bleak and downbeat to score with local audiences, though their DVD releases helped build an international audience. (Programming collective Subway Cinema, which now produces the New York Asian Film Festival, mounted an important early retrospective of the films om 2000.)

That initial string of Milkyway films deconstructed the "police and thieves" sub-genre, reimagining stereotypes and the usual routine of choreographing action. Working within their limited means required greater imagination to create memorable and unusual sequences. Even as the company began producing comic fantasies with big stars that satisfied local audiences in increasing numbers, To continues to this day producing and/or directing more personal films that, quite often, feature inventive, surprising gun play.

Vengeance stars French pop star Johnny Hallyday as Costello, a Paris restaurant owner who rushes to Hong Kong Macau* after his daughter is mortally wounded. Her husband was executed by professional assassins for reasons unknown, and her children were killed in the cross fire as well. Costello wants to avenge his daughter's death; he knows his way around weapons but not the local language or scene, so he manages to hire Kwai (Anthony Wong) and his men to help him gain vengeance.

The story proceeds in a stylish, though straight line, with typically brooding dialogue (written by Wai Ka-Fai) and a moody noir atmosphere, where the sun rarely shines, even in the daytime. With a full moon shining, a very quiet gun battle erupts. The men are hidden by tall grass and a couple of ramshackle structures, waiting until clouds pass over the moon to dash into place, and then waiting silently until enough moonlight shines through to see who they're shooting at.

Later, the sun shines overhead, as Kwai and his bound-by-loyalty gang gather weapons at a country dump, where some of Kwai's friends have been executed and their bodies left to rot. The men, all wounded from previous battles, arm up for the inevitable, which arrives in the form of giant bales of trash, ka-thumping from every direction. The heroes are surrounded by trash, behind which are hiding more men than they can possibly defeat.

Both scenes are eerie and chilling, and, happily, typical of Johnnie To.

Johnnie To's 'Vengeance'

* Updated; thanks to commenter Seth Davis for the correction on location.