Cannes 2009: The Tomato Report ? Johnnie To Takes Vengeance in Cannes
While Alejandro Amenabar sinks with Agora.
Cannes is not usually known as a grand supporter of genre cinema, which is why you can count those sorts of movies in this year's selection on one hand. So it's an odd setting to premiere Johnnie To's Vengeance, a film so relentlessly planted in genre that the tough-to-please audience of cineaste critics at yesterday's press screening seemed to balk at its ropey dialogue, unlikely plotting and increasingly silly tone.
The tale of a man (Johnny Hallyday) whose daughter and young family are massacred by a trio of triads, he hires another three of the organized criminals to take them out, warning them that a shot to the head years previously will mean he's likely to succumb to a permanent loss of short-term memory as their mission intensifies.
As the director of Election and PTU, it's everything To's films have come to represent, but the mood at yesterdays screening suggested it wasn't favoured by the Cannes crowd. On the way out, RT overheard one critic complain of the apparently arbitrary nature of his memory condition. He mentions that the issue could start at any time and he would forget all he was setting out to do when, lo and behold, 10 minutes later exactly that happens.
Johnny Hallyday stars in Vengeance
Another critic complained that it was quite the most stupid group of hitmen who would storm into conflict without cover and shoot aimlessly at the wall behind their target, which seemed to be a fixture of the film's action sequences. Coming in at a smooth two hours, and opening with a frenetic takedown of the family, there are plenty of those packed in.
Critics in reviews collected on RT, though, have largely dismissed these issues as quirks of a fun genre. It's a "stylish, whiz-bang revenge melodrama," writes The Hollywood Reporter. "Vengeance can penetrate just about any market in the world. Popcorn and art certainly can co-exist as this movie amply demonstrates."
Variety concurs. It's "a smoothly executed revenge thriller that finds one of Hong Kong's genre masters in assured action-movie form."
"The sensuality of To's visual style and soundscapes and the choreography of the film's bullet ballet provide reasons to watch," agrees Lee Marshall in Screen International. "But the contrived plot, some wooden English dialogue and Hallyday's stilted performance derail proceedings well before the final showdown."
Rachel Weisz in Agora
Also screening yesterday, in an Out of Competition slot, was Alejandro Amenabar's Agora, starring Rachel Weisz, an ancient epic set in fourth-century Alexandria which chronicles an historical uprising and the love between a slave and his mistress. Critics were not amused.
"Agora occasionally hints at the interesting material embedded in its central conceits, but never manages to enliven it," says Eric Kohn for IndieWIRE. While Mike Goodridge in Screen International writes, "Agora does not engage on the same grand emotional level as the sword and sandal epics of old."
In Variety, Todd McCarthy is slightly more optimistic. "[Agora] is consistently spectacular and features enough conflict and action to make it marketable, but [it has] a certain heaviness of style and lack of an emotional pulse."
It's not long in Cannes, of course, before history and genre filmmaking collide in Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which premieres on Wednesday. Could that provoke slightly more excitable reviews from Cannes critics? Join us shortly after to find out, but until then stay tuned for the reaction to Ken Loach's Palme d'Or-tipped Looking for Eric and perhaps the festival's most controversial selection, Lars von Trier's Antichrist.