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.