Ryoo Seung-wan’s The Berlin File details an ominous political network in modern-day Germany in which agents from South Korea, North Korea, and the C.I.A. battle for the upper hand even as the true intentions of both their enemies and allies are cast into doubt, with nothing less than the departed Kim Jong-il’s $4 billion bank account on the line. Though moderately more intelligent than the average action entry of this sort (one that purports gritty realism, but, as indicated by the aforementioned 10-digit number, is in fact rooted in hyperbolic obviousness), this film never strays far from the inoffensively generic, its technical competence as pleasing as its narrative is ultimately lethargic.
The best moments suggest an actioner reimagining of Stephen Gaghan’s politically ambitious but emotionally hollow Syriana, albeit on a micro scale, and where Ryoo’s film similarly falters is in failing to pay more than lip service to the schism between its characters’ personal and professional lives before yielding the proceedings to entertaining but weightless spy-movie hijinks. Consider the fractious marriage between Pyo Jong-seong (Ha Jung-woo) and Ryun Jung-hee (Gianna Jun), he a ghost agent and she an interpreter and whose respective duties test their allegiance in ways that are acknowledged only to remain altogether unexamined, a failing highlighted sorely by the script’s calculated attempt at a sucker-punch conclusion.
This mechanical, almost frigid approach to narrative development would be an ideal way to mirror these characters’ voluntary lack of agency, but such parallels are infrequent at best and accidental at worst, the perfunctory efforts to humanize them beyond their call of duty amounting to little more than serviceable filler. Such banal exposition doesn’t quite cripple the proceedings, but it’s easy to imagine a superior, abbreviated version of the film in which characters and their motivations are examined more effectively, implicitly; as it is, it’s a sporadically entertaining, modestly ambitious shoot ’em up that frequently succumbs to spelling out its subtext. At least the fisticuffs and gunfights are skillfully composed and edited, none better than an apartment brawl that ends with our protagonist functioning as an impromptu wrecking ball, but the high-water mark is an early, bloodless scuffle in a restroom that leaves a sobering impression of the personal toll of politics. By comparison, the rest of the film virtually evaporates on contact.