Johnnie To Captures the Aging of an Action Hero in 'Vengeance'

Sylvester Stallone is 64 years old, and his arms look like they're carved out of tan marble. Oily, veiny marble, but still. While his face hints at his age and he mostly keeps his shirt on, he resembles the buff action star who dominated American screens from the late'70s and into the '80s. If you want to see where he's gone soft, just watch The Expendables (Lionsgate DVD and Blu-ray). The Stallone-co-written and -directed project centers on the sort of tough-talking, wise-cracking swagger and over-the-top fireballs-and-bandoliers-and-big-effing-knives hijinks of the era of action flicks that made him a megastar in a half homage and half attempted career reboot. But this is an older man's movie, and not in a good way.

Maybe the excesses of '80s action can only be approached at this point via winking distance, and there's a measure of that here. Stallone plays Barney Ross, the leader of the typical band of colorful mismatched mercenaries, played by the likes of contemporary action stars Jason Statham and Jet Li, Stallone-era action vet Dolph Lundgren, various second-louie action types (e.g. Terry Crews), and, uh, Mickey Rourke. They're hired to overthrow the generalissimo dictator (David Zayas) of the de rigueur small island nation, but the fact that the general is backed by a Central Casting ex-CIA slimeball (Eric Roberts) and his musclehead thug-in-chief (crossed-over wrestler Steve Austin) makes it a little tougher than usual. Barney should just walk away, as the old trope goes, but he can't get the general's rebellion-plotting daughter (the modelicious Giselle Itié) out of his head.

The Expendables boasts everything you'd expect from a weekend afternoon on the couch watching TNT: a variety of colorful and expensive means of conveyance (look, a seaplane), a great number of outlandish ballistic weapons and edged implements, so many billowing fiery explosions, copious classic-rock music cues, and lots of macho banter. It even has a bit, just a bit, of a sense of humor about itself. But Stallone's failings behind the camera sabotage anything he gets right in front of it. As a director, he's eccentric at best, relying on odd camera angles and inert close-ups and then lavishing the screen with gorgeous seaplane footage. As a writer, he can't find anything to give this deliberate stew of clichés novelty or urgency, and ends up with something like a lesser remake of the already-pretty-lesser Commando. Stallone clearly hungers for the old days, but in the old days, Barney wouldn't have been the would-be nice guy he is here—he'd be an inglorious bastard like stand-outs Lundgren and Roberts. That's why those movies were fun, and why The Expendables is a misfire.

Johnnie To's Vengeance (IFC DVD) offers a very different take on the aging man of action. Vintage French pop star Johnny Hallyday plays Francis Costello, a comfortable Parisian restaurateur who is drawn to the Chinese sin city of Macau after his daughter and her family are slaughtered there by thugs unknown. Costello hires local hitmen of his own (To veterans Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, and Gordon Lam) to avenge their deaths, though he is not without skills of his own, as he used to make a living with a gun, too. But his former life left him with an unfortunate legacy—a bullet still lodged in his head that is causing his memory to falter. As his vengeance presses forward and the stakes become as personal for his gunmen as they are for him, it becomes something of an existential crisis for all concerned.

John Woo is far better known to American audiences, but To has proved himself the Hong Kong action director par excellence with a string of films that rarely reach the heights of Woo's best but rarely disappoint with their verve, poise, and unfailing craft. To plies well-worn territory here, recycling bits and characters from his own back pages (see also: The Mission, Exiled) as well as from Memento and from Jean-Pierre Melville's classic Le Samourai (the director originally wanted the latter's Alain Delon for Hallyday's role). But not only do the individual set pieces dazzle—a shoot-out in woods lit only by an intermittent moon, a bewildered Costello wandering rainy streets searching for his allies with only Polaroids of their forgotten faces to guide him—To's unsentimental treatment of these men of few words and firm codes gives Vengeance a resonance that sucks you into their inarticulate concerns. In one sequence, Costello and his men stalk their targets to a secluded park, only to have the targets' wives and children show up for a cookout. Costello and company hold their fire and sit and watch the men they've come to kill function as husbands and fathers. While To can film an action scene on a par with any director working today, it's the hard truths behind the feuds and allegiances and double-crosses and facing of fate that make his work stand out from the shallow thrills of the outlandish action The Expendables would revive, and makes Vengeance a must-see.