Sunday, June 1, 2008

The City of Violence review

Tae-su, a tough cop from Seoul receives news that his childhood friend Wang-jae has been stabbed to death after a brawl in his bar. He returns home for the funeral and meets up with the rest of his friends: Pil-ho, Dong-hwan and Seok-hwan. Seeking answers and revenge, Tae-su and Seok-hwan begin their own investigations of their friend’s murder and they stumble onto an unexpectedly deeper plot behind it.

The City of Violence brings director Ryoo Seung-wan back to his crime genre roots thematically, but really, it’s his chance to update 70's action films with his own touch.
This outing is low on the fantasy elements of Arahan or the character development of Crying Fist, and high on being slick, smooth and stylish. Ryoo takes a touch of The Warriors, throws in some well-choreographed tae-kwon-do action and glosses it over with some cheesiness inherent in 70s exploitation from the characterizations to the groovy soundtrack.

It’s all a joy to watch, but it’s a struggle to care about much. Plot revelations are hardly as surprising as they should be, childhood flashbacks are a delight but barely there, and most of the main characters undergo little change, besides the standard gradual rise of anger.

The second act stumbles with plot development made too complex for its own good, and a poor follow-up on the subtle character detail in the first act. Highlights include a wonderfully corny slow-motion flashback to the main characters’ high school days and a ridiculous Warriors-esque gathering of schoolchildren gangs poised to teach our main character a lesson about digging too deep. The strong theme of corruption of the youth is responsible for these scenes, but it is abruptly dropped for little reason.

The fights remain tense simply because the star pair played by Jung Doo-hong and Ryoo Seung-wan are so damn cool and likeable. We want them to avenge their fallen comrade. Simple as that. The action build-ups and climax rely on this simple, effective hook to work their magic.

The fights are gorgeous, solidifying Ryoo as the most visually exciting Korean action director working today and Jung Doo-hung as a master of stunt choreography. Despite the emphasis on style, the hits still hurt, from baseballs to the chest to sashimi knife cuts all over. The action is covered with tight precision, a wonderful variety of locations and dynamic cinematography that captures the constraints of restaurant walls, or the openness of the city streets (unless packed with hundreds of armed school children).

Ryoo also has his fun with the extended climax and the second act street fight by pitting his heroes against insurmountable odds. It feels like a long time since a couple of guys took out this many enemies in a martial arts film, and it’s nice to see a throwback to the scenario. Though Ryoo’s last climactic martial arts sequence (from Arahan) may have seemed unnecessarily long, The City of Violence gets it just right. There’s a healthy level of variety in the fight scenarios and our main characters slowly get whittled down to the point where (gasp) we don’t really know how they will get through the next fight and remain standing. In the end, isn’t that the essence of the action movie?


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