Pros:Great performances from Anthony Wong and Richie Ren.
Cons:Story is more melodramatic than action-packed.
The Bottom Line: Punished is not Milkyway's finest hour, but fans of Anthony Wong and Richie Ren should still find it enjoyable on some level.
Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Recommend this product?
Johnnie To’s Milkyway production company has been responsible for a number of classic Hong Kong action flicks over the past decade or so. The bulk of those films have been directed by To personally, as the filmmaker has cemented his reputation as one of the greatest action auteurs in the world. However, the busy To can’t direct everything his company releases – and he’s handed over the reigns to Law Wing-cheong for 2011’s revenge thriller Punished.
Law has spent a great deal of time learning at the master’s feet (he worked second as a second unit director and an AD on films like The Mission and Election), but his own efforts (the modest Running Out of Time 2) have been somewhat lacking. Can he carry the company banner in this standalone project? The answer isn’t entirely clear even after the credits roll.
Punished is a bit of an enigma as a film – at first glance, it comes across as an Asian update of the Liam Neeson vehicle, Taken. When Wong Ho-chiu’s (the venerable Anthony Wong) troublesome teenage daughter is kidnapped and killed, the grief-stricken business tycoon sends his right hand man Chor (Richie Ren) to exact bloody revenge on the perpetrators.
That sounds like the perfect plotline for a classic modern heroic bloodshed film, but for some strange reason Punished isn’t content to keep things so simple. The screenplay promises violence and revenge and brutality – but it generally delivers pathos and melodrama instead.
I’m not generally a fan of criticizing a film for failing to be something I expected, but in this case I feel a little betrayed. Punished’s cover art and synopsis hint at a different film than what I ultimately watched – a film I’d have probably been more impressed with than what played on my screen. You can’t judge a film by the DVD cover, of course – and this is hardly the first HK film to pull a bit of a cinematic bait-and-switch on its audience -- but it’s hard to look at Punished and not feel a twinge of disappointment at what might have been.
This isn’t meant to denigrate what Law and his team actually provide – Punished may not be what I expected exactly, and it pales in comparison to the To films it’s so desperately trying to ape, but it does have some things that should appeal to fans of these new wave Asian revenge films. Punished may never reach the lofty heights of Park Chan-wook’s vengeance trilogy or films like I Saw the Devil, but it’s a solid enough companion piece to those features.
Wong and Ren are the film’s saving graces – two men who play characters who are diametrically opposite (Wong’s a wealthy businessman, Ren’s a hired gun ex-gangster) but have things in common as well. Both are fathers – but Wong is domineering and hard on his offspring, while Ren longs to reconnect with his son who wants nothing to do with him. Wong’s character is the focal point, but Ren is the foil – the guy who’s already walked this sort of path of vengeance before and knows that it leads nowhere good. He treads it again only out of a sense of loyalty to his employer – but it’s clear that he’s hoping his boss realizes that violence won’t bring his daughter back before he crosses the point of no redemption.
It’s in these moments that Punished really works. Wong and Ren turn in very different, but highly refined, performances. Wong’s a Hong Kong icon and his work here is as effortless as it always is. He chews some scenery at times, but never crosses over into caricature. Ren, on the other hand, presents everything in a calculated and understated way. Everything works because the two men are so inextricably linked yet so opposite. Yet, beneath those differences lies some very common ground.
Law’s film is more interested in exploring this and presenting an out-of-sequence series of events chronicling what happened to Wong’s daughter than ever actually getting to the violence we expected. There are moments of physical conflict in the film – but they’re few and far between. Ren’s Chor is clearly a skilled gangster when it comes to interrogation and punishment, but that’s not the focal point of the story. That will surely disappoint anyone who expected a full-on revenge-driven bloodbath. This is not something along the lines of The Horseman.
Those who can accept Punished for what it really is instead of what it could have been will find Law Wing-cheong’s film serviceable if ultimately a bit underwhelming. Think of it as B-grade Johnnie To, if you will, and you’re on the right path. The film never manages to carve out a wholly satisfying identity of its own, but Wong and Ren are compulsively watchable and manage to keep things moving even when the narrative threatens to collapse under the weight of its own melodramatic tendencies. It’s clear that Punished will go down as one of Milkyway’s lesser productions, but I never felt like I was being punished while watching it.
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Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for a Rainy Day