[This post is cross-published at Parallax View.]
This slick South Korean underworld thriller is not a transcendent action film in any way, but in the realm of humorless South Korean action conventions it’s well constructed, suitably dark and dangerous and filled with well-honed, visceral scenes. And it didn’t hurt to see the film in a theater packed with a target audience you rarely share the experience with. I don’t mean American male action fans, but young South Korean women with an affection for its matinee idol start, Won Bin (most recently, he played the son in Bong Joon-ho’s Mother). The ooohs emanated from all parts of the theater (but especially the front rows) when Won makes his entrance, playing an emotionally distant pawn shop proprietor behind a lock of hair artfully falling over his right eye.
Then again when we get the first flashback of Won, heretofore nameless, as the highly-trained government agent Cha Tae-chik, a super-spy with mad skills and a military haircut. And, of course, when we get our first shirtless scene of the dreamy, tortured hero, when he’s pulled back into the world he fled years before to save a little girl from the heartless criminals who add to the drug-dealing coffers with a sideline in black market organs and child slavery.
There are fiercely dedicated young cops on the trail of the drug ring, ruthlessly violent criminal gangs at war over the drug trade, a single mom nightclub dancer on the needle who rips off the mob, and her adorably spunky young daughter who manages to keep her spirit in the face of all the misery around her and refuses to give up on the enigmatic pawn shop man, her only friend in the world. When she’s kidnapped by the Chinese gangs muscling into the drug trade, that’s the last straw and the killing machine of old is back, and he’s not content to just kill these gang members. He punishes them, making sure they suffer before they die, sometimes slowly, always painfully.
Director Lee Jeong-Beom puts it all in the twilight of the underworld, mostly at night, often in dungeon-like interiors of abandoned buildings and slum hovels, always in the shadows. The cops here aren’t corrupt, but they can be brutal, and are remarkably out of the loop despite all the resources at their disposal. They know more about the Cha, despite the military lock on his record, than they do about the criminal organization they have been shadowing for months, and while they get in his way, they are no more than an inconvenience for the one-man army. The rest is predictable stuff, from an icy assassin with a touch of humanity about him to the colorful psychos who dress flashy and laugh at their brutality until Cha comes around to exact retribution. But it is pretty damn slick, suitably grim and just a little cute, thanks to the innocent adoration of a little girl waiting for a hero to save the day.
Sean Axmaker is a DVD columnist for MSN Entertainment, a contributing writer for Turner Classic Movies Online and the managing editor of Parallax View. He was a film critic for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for nine years, his work has appeared in The Seattle Weekly, The Stranger, The Seattle Post-Globe, Senses of Cinema, Asian Cult Cinema, Psychotronic Video and “The Scarecrow Video Guide” and he collaborated with Sherman Alexie on the commentary track to the DVD release of The Exiles. You can find links to all of this and more on his shamelessly self-promoting blog.