Discuss: Korean action cinema is the most exciting in the world right now. That’s not to say that there aren’t exciting examples coming from elsewhere in the world (Indonesia in particular has soared up in recent years thanks to Gareth Evans and “The Raid” movies), but from Park Chan-wook to Kim Jee-woon by way of Bong Joon-ho, the last decade or so of Korean cinema have been some of the most exciting and innovative around.
And that kept up at Cannes, with the dementedly entertaining thriller “A Hard Day“ one of Jessica Kiang‘s highlights of the festival. As such, we had high hopes for “The Target,” another high-octane thriller from South Korea, this time hailing from uni-named filmmaker Chang, and serving as a remake of recent French actioner “Point Blank” (and not, as we thought going in, John Boorman‘s 1960s gangster classic of the same name, which led to a very confusing opening ten minutes until we made the connection).
The plot remains much the same, albeit transposed East: an unconscious man, shot and hit by a car, is brought into a hospital, where a doctor, Lee Tae-joon (Lee Jin-wook) saves his life when an assassin tries to sever the lines keeping him alive. When he gets home, however, he’s knocked unconscious, and wakes to find his pregnant wife Hee-joo (Jo Yeo-jeong) kidnapped, and a phone call instructing him that if he wants her back, he needs to deliver the mysterious patient to the kidnapper.
He sets down that path, immediately drawing the attention of the police, led by tough female cop Jung Young-joo (Kim Sung-ryung) and her ambitious superior Song Gi-cheol (Hong Sang-soo veteran Yoo Jun-sang). But the patient, who turns out to be a former mercenary named Baek Yeo-hoon (Ryu Seung-ryong), claims to have been set-up by a murderer, and whose Tourettes-suffering brother Sung-hoon (Jin Go), is the kidnapper of Lee’s wife. Can Lee catch up to Baek, and get his wife back, before the police, or worse, catch up to them?
Beat by beat, it comes close to replicating the original Gallic thriller almost entirely, but the action is amped up considerably: more bullets flying, more blood spilled, and more general chaos, particularly in a final police-station showdown that’s much, much more batshit crazy. Stylistically, it’s of a piece with the genre, all shutter-speed and muted colors, and Chang certainly shows himself to be a competent in staging action sequences, although some of the close-quarter fight scenes lean towards Bourne-style choppiness rather than clearer, longer takes.
The results, as with the French film, are reasonably gripping. The plotting might be somewhat silly, and pretty much falls apart as soon as you think about it, but it knows how to keep you involved, and throws enough twists into proceedings that the audience remains somewhat on their toes.
And yet it comes close to being needlessly frantic. The film’s so relentlessly paced that the characters tend to come across as cyphers more than anything, particularly when it comes to Baek, who’s unconscious for much of the early part of the film. Attempting to beef up his relationship with his brother by making him suffering from Tourettes comes across as a bit cheap and sub-“Rain Man“-ish.
The performances are also somewhat uneven. Ryu is a magnetic presence as the mercenary, even though he isn’t given all that much to do. But Lee, as his co-lead, feels severely miscast, wet and boyish like he’s just walked out of a boy-band, rather than being a doctor with something to lose, and that makes it all the more hard to care what happens to him. Still, the film does at least have a decent villain. We won’t spoil who it turns out to be, but the culprit does some solid scenery-chewing without quite tipping over the top.
Ultimately, it’s all just a little too generic. The best of Korean cinema has melded and crashed together genres to enormously enjoyable effect, but perhaps because of its remake origins, Chang’s film feels generic and played out. It’s not a terrible chase thriller, but it’s not a memorable one either, and pretty much dissipates into the air as soon as you leave the theater. That said, it’ll still likely be better than the probably inevitable Liam Neeson-starring remake. [C]