Over the years, the east (namely the Asian film industry) has been leading the way in terms of stunt work, choreography and of course martial arts in cinema. Some of the legendary classics being Indonesia’s The Raid: Redemption, most of Donnie Yen’s filmography and Thailand’s Ong Bak series. Korea is definitely no slacker either when it comes to giving us our action movie fixes. From the winding mindf–k that is Oldboy to the more orthodox crime thriller of Cold Eyes to…a film set in a dystopian future where everyone lives on a train with Chris Evans as the lead? — I’m referring to Snowpiercer, by the way.
They all have one thing in common and that is an admirable dedication to bringing beauty to violence, whether it be achieved through camerawork, flawless coordination or pure insanity! And now, first-time director Lee Seung-won is looking to make his mark on the Asian action landscape with Revenger. Does he deliver the goods or will he be relegated as a mere footnote in cinematic history?
The plot of the film is set on the island of AP-101, a sort of penal colony in which prisoners of mostly Asian descent are sent to. Among the prisoners sent there is the notorious crime boss and killer, Kuhn. The island is divided into two factions, one that utilizes a protective and isolationist tribal mentality and the other, a vicious Darwinian philosophy. The latter tends to be far more aggressive and therefore terrorizes the former. They’re free to kill, rape and loot as much as they desire. No surprise, Kuhn joins up with the would-be conquerors of the island.
There’s just one problem, the man who sent him there is also on his way, former Interpol officer Yool. Kuhn had ruthlessly gunned down his family and Yool, in turn, had severely disfigured Kuhn’s face. Now both men are on a collision course as Yool teams up with a tribe of prisoners, a little girl and her mother, Mali to take down Kuhn and his posse of savages. Shit’s up to get primal in the land of AP-101.
Altogether, the film offers an intriguing microcosm with plenty of potential for Mad Max style mayhem and action. When it comes to the gritty and vile depiction of human depravity and violence in Revenger, it is at its best. Beyond that, the plot is fairly cookie cutter. How many times have we heard the “family man turned one-man-army” tale? The answer: way too many times. I mean it’s pretty much a subgenre by itself. Where the film loses me is in some of its downright odd creative choices that seem to serve little purpose. For example, the film establishes that a good majority of the prisoners can speak Korean but at times, some of them will switch out to English for no discernible reason whatsoever.
There are moments in which they are justified, like when Yool faces off against a warlord who clearly isn’t Korean. Then there’s the cartoonish sort of bumbling that comes from the Maly’s tribe, especially their leader Bau played by Kim In-Kwon. It seemed like he was doing his best Jack Black impression. And then they had this strange Haka dance lifted right out of Maori culture with no one performing it looking remotely of Pacific origins.
I mean these are all small things but when you add them all up, they can range from quirky to disruptive. There were honestly times when I had to rewind scenes just to comprehend them in their full context. When the plot becomes a hindrance to the film itself, that’s when you know you’ve well…lost the plot! I didn’t care about the rehashed dead family trope. I didn’t care about Maly or Jin’s subplot. I certainly have no love for the other side characters whose sole purpose is to chew scenery and occasionally provide exposition.
It’s clear, director Lee Seung-won has a lot more to learn when it comes to focus and tone. This sort of dissonance is off-putting and reflects his inexperience in crafting a cohesive narrative. Directors like Quentin Tarantino, Paul Thomas Anderson and the Coens are the rare few that know how to balance dramatic tension with situational absurdity. Their films are all the more memorable and richer for it. It takes timing, character development and a certain level of finesse. Revenger, unfortunately, falls short in all these categories.
The pacing of Revenger adopts a stop-and-go method, stopping to set up stake before running headfirst into the next big action set piece. That’d be fine if it wasn’t for the fact that one of these characters really go into any interesting places because of the film’s dedication to maintaining the mystique of Yool. He’s a badass I get it but this slowburn in the form of long bouts of silence and flashbacks cannot replace genuine character moments and decisions.
The world in which the characters inhabit doesn’t tell much of a story either. Asian criminals are all sent to an island to be quarantined off from the rest of the world, the end. We don’t actually learn much about the island’s history. So at some point, I found myself asking these questions: Is the film trying to adopt a more minimalist hint-don’t-tell approach like the first John Wick? Or is it trying to do some actual worldbuilding with all its oddball characters and rituals like Fury Road with the War Boys? The answer is a resounding… both-ish?
Don’t look to the writing here to save the film either. Leading man Bruce Khan is an exceptional physical actor but has a looooong way to go when it comes to delivering believable dialogue. The actual Korean dialogue is functional in the way in conveys exposition. The English bits however, they really do belong at the bottom of a fondue pot because they are cheesy as all hell. Won’t lie, I shuddered every time Bau unnaturally punctuated the end of his sentences with “man”. I mean I felt that in my bones.
How about the performances themselves? Surely a solid group of actors can inject some life into the scenes. Well, one thing I can’t say is that I wasn’t bored. I was annoyed, confused and maybe mildly amused but never bored. Yool played by Bruce Khan is our man of action, on a mission to avenge the death of his loved ones. There isn’t any sort of poignant character development or moment of breakthrough. In fact, his entire journey was cliche at best and passe at worst. Jin and Mali are mostly forgettable, merely existing to move the plot along, occasionally distilling information to Yool.
Right, so the film isn’t going to give us Sorkin dialogue or even Daniel Day-Lewis level acting. Fine, I’ve accepted that. Frankly, I wasn’t even expecting that to begin with. The action however…that’s when the film excelled. The most impressive one being when Yool shows up on the scene to save Mali and her daughter Jin from a group of criminals hunting them down. They catch up with them and all hope seems lost and like the wave of an ocean washing up, Yool arrives like a deadly force of nature. He proceeds to kick the living shit out of every one of them with nothing but his own two feet, seeing that he has restraints on him. That immediately got my attention.
Suddenly all the family melodrama and baggage that came with the scene was washed away in a flurry of kinetic kicks, rapid cut POV shots and limb cracking goodness. Then, the nonsense plot happened again. Then we get some claustrophobic, close quarters fighting when Yool infiltrates a stronghold to save Jin. Make no mistake though, this has been done better in other Korean films. Namely the original Oldboy and a scene in Snowpiercer involving axes. In Revenger you will find some moments of brilliance sprinkled throughout the final fight but it never quite recaptures the magic of the opening act beach fight.
Revenger is the kind of film you’d watch when you’ve spent your Netflix catalogue or you’re feeling adventurous. The film may boast impressive action and stylish camerawork, it’s not anything groundbreaking. Director Lee Seung-won is still finding his voice and that’s perfectly fine, I can definitely see him doing better in the future. Believe or not, the best kind of action films are the ones with a compelling plot. Note not necessarily a complex one but one that knows how to incorporate the tonality and signature style of the action into the nature of the story being told.
The insanity and brutality of Mad Max: Fury Road’s vehicular slaughter fits the premise that director George Miller sets up. The action in Revenger at times can feel divorced from the plot especially when its hampered down by a series of intentionally goofy choices. There’s fun to be had but at the expense of a few brain cells.
It's hard to recommend Revenger with all of its odd creative decisions that range from quirky to disruptive but you can look pass its flaws, there is some fun to be had here. At its best it appeals to you on a primal level and at its worst it will offend sensibilities.