There have been many filmmakers who have significantly raised the bar of action movies. In the early 80’s, Australian George Miller gave audiences THE ROAD WARRIOR, and the sequel topped its predecessor MAD MAX with its over-the-top approach to fast edits, arched camera angles, and eye-popping stunt work during its climactic car chase scene. Then in 2002, Luc Besson pushed the action motif even further with THE TRANSPORTER and its 90-minute narrative serving as one extended car chase. In 2003’s OLD BOY, director Chan-wook Park mesmerized moviegoers with action sequences shot in long takes so we could see all the intricately choreographed stunt work happening in real time. And now, we have Jung Byung-gil dazzling us further with POV camera work in THE VILLAINESS that turns his action sequences into a real life first person shooter game.
Byung-gil’s incredibly kinetic actioner starts with one of the most audacious openers ever filmed. It’s as if the Goldeneye or Call of Duty video game has replaced its computer-generated imagery with real actors. In the sequence, the film’s femme fatale Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin) bursts into the bad guy’s lair and kills everything in her sight. It’s done mostly in hand-to-hand combat style, and just how it was shot is one of the pleasures awaiting the VOD extras when it’s released. We see all that is happening from Sook-hee’s POV. And unlike in HARDCORE HENRY from two years ago, which told its entire storyline from his POV, this one is never nauseating or hard to follow. Instead, we experience her rage and skill up close and personal. And the icing on this juggernaut of a cake? Byung-gil has her enter different rooms where more henchmen await just like in the various levels once faces in a video game. It’s both ridiculously on-the-nose in its satire and yet hilarious in being so cheeky.
Throughout the film when the action scenes arise, Byung-gil will employ this first-person trope, putting us directly in the head of his heroine. Still, he does so much more that is clever here. He tells an intricate story. He develops his characters with nuance. And he ensures that we are wholly invested in the plight of his female lead. This really could've gotten away with just being a superb actioner, shot impeccably with gonzo cinematography, biting visual wit, and deft editing. It is that, but it's also an emotionally moving story. When Sook-hee isn’t fighting, she’s trying to be a mother, girlfriend and human being and it was wise for Byung-gil to spend as much time and skill in nailing such calm as well as all the storm.
It helps that he has such a terrific actress in Ok-bin. She has big, soulful eyes that could give Margaret Keane a run for her money, and an expressiveness in language and movement that makes her a first-rate ingénue as well as an expert stunt woman. Her character of Sook-hee isn’t really a villainess, but she is a definite bad-ass. She’s that way, angered and embittered, because she watched her father be murdered by a paid assassin when she was a child. Now, vengeance is what she's living for. Yet, even though Sook-hee becomes a trained killer to fulfill her destiny, she still strives for more. There is still a little girl needing love inside her hardened exterior.
The killing machine that she will become comes courtesy of a secret training program, much like that found in Besson’s LA FEMME NIKITA (1990). You wouldn't think she'd need any more training after taking out the hundreds of henchmen in that opening sequence but when she's captured, her skills are put to use by a government operation that turns delinquents into assassins. And just like that facility in Luc Besson’s film, this is not only a school to learn such things, it's also a finishing school for girls. The lovely young students are taught how to dress, eat, and act. If you're going to be Mata Hari, you have to know how to play the vamp, right?
And one of the very first things that the cold, stern, and chain-smoking head mistress Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyeong) does to help Sook-hee along those lines is she has her go under the knife to enhance her cheekbones and whittle away her nose. She was lovely already, but perhaps this film is commenting on the standards of beauty demanded by a patriarchal Asian society, let alone the exacting demands of actresses in Tinsel Town. This is one smart and smart-aleck film.
Soon, Sook-hee establishes herself as the best student among the recruits, willing to chop, kick, and punch all comers with brutal abandon. She does manage to make one friend in all this - the forlorn, weaker student Min-joo (Son Min-je). And she makes an enemy too when she provides too much competition for the equally talented and ambitious Kim Seon (Jo Euin-ji). Sook-hee's talents and looks also attract the attention of the various male handlers working behind the scenes in operations. As they watch her from one of the secret monitoring rooms, the very handsome, very sensitive Hyun-soo (Sung Jun) starts to fall in love. Complicating matters are Sook-hee's pregnancy, used as an opportunity by Kwon to control her all the more. She promises Sook-hee that when her little girl reaches 10, then her mom's contract with the organization will end. But up until then, Sook-hee's ass is Kwon's.
From there, Sook-hee has her baby, starts life with the young girl, and begins her career as an assassin. She’s set up in an apartment complex and Hyun-soo is placed in the unit next to her to spy on her. She doesn't know he's essentially there to be her handler, and when they fall for each other, it will complicate everything demonstrably. In many ways it is obvious where the story goes from there - it probably won't end well for Hyun-soo - and Sook-hee’s professional and personal lives start blurring and causing all sorts of damage. She and Hyun-soo fall in love and even get married, and that is the kiss of death always in a movie like this.
Yet, the two things that keep all of this fresh and involving are the inventive action set-pieces that Byung-gil places Sook-hee in, as well as those scenes that slow down and let us see her beyond her profession. And the dialogue scenes are very compelling, if not quite as amazing as the action scenes. This film has the bravura opener as well as two other ginormous set-pieces that explode off the screen. One is a motorcycle chase that again puts us in the POV of Sook-hee as she drives down the road and fights with a couple of assassins on her tail, and the other is the climax aboard a rollicking bus that serves as a deathtrap for almost all involved.
The romantic scenes between Ok-bin and Jun have almost as much spark as Byung-gil knows that all the great camera work, editing and energy in an action sequence don’t matter if we don’t care for those involved in it. Thus, we have a female character who registers as strongly with her man in her bed, as she does with her daughter in her arms, as she does with a sub-machine gun in her hands.
There is nary a false move in any of the editing, particularly in the superbly realized action sequences place. However, Byung-gil does let his film get a bit 'cutty' when he cuts back and forth between the present day and Sook-hee's history. There are a lot of flashbacks, and some are confusing as they withhold important information until later in the film. It's a small criticism, but one wonders if the backstory could've been simplified so it wouldn't occasionally upend the momentum that the main story gets going.
Such winner as this one help make action the most exportable genre since the form translates easily across nations as it relies upon visuals and not dialogue that might not always translate. This one does come with subtitles, but the words are worth reading just as much as the action is worth watching. It's a clever story, with meaningful characters and words, as well as an energy that grabs you from the opening second and never really lets go. This is an amazingly accomplished actioner that can stand with those classics mentioned in the first paragraph. Indeed, this one feels like an instant classic.
In many respects, it's unfair to compare AMERICAN ASSASSIN, which also opens this weekend, to THE VILLAINESS, but one cannot help such things what with its timing. Granted, this one comes with a strong pedigree, yet not much of it helps here. Yes, it's from CBS Films, known for doing good work across a number of genres, and one of the film's stars is Michael Keaton, who starred in back-to-back Best Picture winners two years ago. AMERICAN ASSASSIN can also boast that two of its screenwriters are veteran scribes Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz. Still, none of it helps within the framework of this film that is wrought with cliches and misjudgments.
It does start off well with a grabber of an opener where the lanky Mitch Rapp (Dylan O’Brien) films his marriage proposal to his comely girlfriend Katrina (Charlotte Vega) on his cellphone while standing in the waters of a vacation paradise. Soon, their joy will be ruined forever by vicious Middle East terrorists shooting up tourist season with their automatic weapons. They end up badly wounding Rapp and killing Kat with a shot to the heart. (A bit on the nose, but still...) From there, Rapp will start his journey towards vengeance as he turns from a charming, young man into a trained, cold-eyed killer. It's too bad that his arc couldn't be more like that of Sook-hee in THE VILLAINESS, full of warm moments to counter the cold ones. Instead, his journey is one-track, and it's all too expected and rather dull because of it.
Yet, like in THE VILLAINESS, Rapp is being monitored by a secret government operation, this one within the black op's of the CIA, and he too is recruited to be one of their elite assassins. And both films have bosses, Chief Kwon and Keaton's assassin trainer Stan Hurley, respectively, who are no-nonsense veterans who will display more humanity as the story unfolds. But after that, THE VILLAINESS raises the bar of the genre while AMERICAN ASSASSIN trolls in the tried and true that have become cliched.
It also lacks a necessary element of fun. It doesn't help that Rapp is such a dull lead character, a real dead-eyed cipher. O'Brien has demonstrated charm and acting acumen in the past with the likes of TEEN WOLF on the small screen and THE MAZE RUNNER on the big screen, but here he seems to be doing a Xerox copy of an imitation of a riff on Stallone or Schwarzenegger’s stern bravado. It doesn’t work because he’s too young, too thin, and too callow looking.
Maybe his director Michael Cuesta pushed him to act so inert, but Rapp isn't a black op, he's a black hole sucking up all the energy in every scene with his stone face. Couldn't such insolence have at least been slightly witty? You know, give him some silly one-liners to show he's having a little bit of fun. And the patchy, scruffy beard that O’Brien wears throughout in an attempt to give him some machismo ends up making the young actor look like he’s playing Charlie Manson for Halloween dress-up who unfortunately ran out of spirit gum.
In fact, even without the hoary puns, this film has a real 80’s action picture vibe to it, right down to its poster. Unfortunately, it looks like one of those straight-to-video thrillers, not an esteemed work from CBS. (Dolph Lundgren, anyone?) The movie may think it's being timely with its terrorist storyline, but in almost every other aspect, this one feels as "been there, done that" as all the tired actioners Steven Seagal made after the god-awful ON DEADLY GROUND killed his career. Of course, Hurley is crusty and uncompromising, just like all such roles were written back in the 80's and 90's. Of course, the meticulously planned mission falls apart instantly because of a rookie recruit. Haven't we seen that play out a hundred times? And of course, all the good guys get repeatedly pummeled, beaten and even burned, yet they act like all those wounds are mere scratches.
The silliness gets worse when more and more cliches are ticked off during the run of the film, like when the CIA boss Kennedy (Sanaa Lathan) repeatedly exclaims that Rapp is worth keeping around though he can't follow a single order. It gets even worse then when the team stakes out a town in Rome and continually stares at their mark with a conspicuousness that would tip off a blind man. And by the time, the bloodied team members are walking through the city, looking like battered meat, and stealing cars willy nilly, the whole thing has gone laughably off the rails. Of course, the double agent Iranian Annika (Shiva Negar) is actually a hero. Of course, the bad guy spy Ghost (Taylor Kitsch) has multiple opportunities to off Hurley, yet he doesn’t. (Gotta have Keaton around for the sequel if this thing takes off!)
Sure, this movie has a Saturday Redbox rental “Oh, what the hell, why not?” aura to it that may turn it into a cheesy hit on VOD. But as a big screen tentpole, attempting to launch a new franchise, a fresh action hero, and make a statement about the state of terrorism, it just blows it at almost every level. I love Michael Keaton but please tell me Hollywood is offering him better roles than this. Where the hell is that BEETLEJUICE sequel already?