By: Henry J. Fromage (Three Beers) –
A group of misfit killers converge upon a climactic assassination bloodbath to be of Axis officers and collaborating sycophants and their own probable deaths in a film full of brutal violence, breath-stealing action scenes, a dark but effective sense of humor, and a boatload of interesting characters. Nope, I’m not talking about Inglourious Basterds. I’m talking about Assassination.
Which you already knew from the title of this review. Dammit, Henry, you’re terrible at introductions.
Choi Dong-hoon, the director of one of my favorite action films of the last several years that you probably haven’t seen, but owe yourself to hunt down soon, The Thieves, takes a stab at historical action, and mostly strikes true. When it comes to action, few working today do it better than Choi, and probably none of them do it cheaper. Assassination only cost $16 million, but looks like $80 at least- accountants in Hollywood better be paying attention to what’s happening in Korea.
Zack Snyder, your days and budgets are numbered.
The film boasts a great ensemble cast, including many actors from Thieves, led by Ha Jung-woo (The Chaser, Kundo: Age of the Rampant) and Lee Jung-jae (The Housemaid) playing conflicted double-crossing characters, sometimes working for the Japanese occupiers, sometimes for the Korean independence movement, but most of the time their own money-making ends. The double crosses and plot twists fly hot and heavy, but are always followable and usually very effective.
My favorite characters of the many excellent ones to chose from are the gloriously mustachioed Sten-firing Old Man (Oh Dal-su), comic relief turned action steamroller Big Gun (Cho Jin-woong), and Gianna Jun, out-badassing all of the males handily as a crack sniper and fearless freedom fighter. She’s one of the best female action stars in the world right now, hands down.
Come at me, Angelina Jolie.
Choi’s awesome setpieces and fancy shooting, like the way he consciously crosses the same actor playing twins- daring you to figure out the cinematic magic trick, is the what should sell your ticket, though. One stunt with a motorcycle cutting in front of a flipping car was literally insane, and the wedding shootout is straight out of Tarantino, like a mix between Kill Bill and the climactic theater scene of Basterds. Choi’s definitely going for that thematically, too, with the exaggerated, almost cartoonish violence in places and the way in which a high price is paid to get revenge against a brutal oppressor.
About that brutal oppressor. While Basterds has that incredibly evil yet charismatically likable performance by Christoph Waltz, this film goes about manufacturing blatantly evil straw men as quickly as it can. One scarred Japanese officer shoots a traditionally garbed Korean flower girl down in the street for dirtying his shoes, while Choi makes a point of giving us a scene of our hotel-bombing heroes discussing how they won’t kill any civilians, not even Japanese ones (this takes a moment of deliberation).
These are only bad-guy killing grenades. For serious.
While Choi may have been going for Tarantino-like graphic exaggeration, it comes across as propaganda, and pretty poor propaganda at that. Choi misses entirely how Tarantino successfully navigated the tricky tones of Basterds through complex character work like Hans Landa and the Sniper, Fredrick Zoller, who was evil, yes, but conflicted about it in interesting ways. Instead, here all of the Japanese are cartoon Hitler, waiting to be mowed down.
You’re watching a Korean blockbuster- you signed up for a 140 minute film no matter what. That length isn’t a problem, but the multiple time jumps and identically mustached and clothed minor characters can be. Also, the plot often makes the most predictably conventional choice, the inevitable romance between Ha and Jun doesn’t remotely work (and detracts from her character’s strength and determination in a few scenes as a poor tradeoff), and Choi’s concoction of comedy and tragedy doesn’t always go down well.
Maybe deeming this a Korean Inglourious Basterds is setting your expectations up too much. Maybe think more of a Korean Michael Bay production- but one of the sweet action setpiece-happy ones with really cool characters, say, The Rock. Not too shabby.
Assassination Drinking Game
Take a Drink: for double crosses and double agents
Take a Drink: whenever Gianna Jun puts on her glasses
Take a Drink: whenever Old Man whips out his Sten gun
Take a Drink: for major character deaths
Do a Shot: whenever you smell propaganda