The Killer (Choi Jaehoon, 2022)

Last night I picked up and started reading the first Jack Reacher book. I saw the first Tom Cruise movie years ago, and liked it well enough, and really enjoyed the Amazon series that premiered on Amazon earlier this year. My edition of the book includes an introduction by author Lee Child, where he describes how he came to be a writer in mid-life and how he designed his project deliberately to run counter to prevailing trends in suspense literature. Specifically, he wanted to make Reacher not a flawed protagonist, haunted by addiction or trauma or moral grayness, not a guy who loses over and over again until he somehow, barely, wins in the end, but rather the biggest, strongest, smartest, most capable person in every situation. He figured that audiences would grow tired of relatable heroes, that we’d much more enjoy seeing the forces of evil get what’s coming to them by a larger than life (literally), hero. I thought about that a lot while watching The Killer, the latest action thriller from Korean star Jang Hyuk.

Jang plays a retired professional assassin (the eponymous killer) who is tasked by his lovely wife with babysitting her friend’s teenage daughter while the two of them (wife and friend) go hang out at a beachside resort for three weeks. Because he’s a pushover, he accepts the job, only for the unfortunate teen to almost immediately fall into the hands of murderous sex traffickers. So he does what he does best: employ his fists, feet, knives, guns, automobiles, sticks, or whatever in tracking down the girl and killing all the bad guys in the way. Many many action scenes follow, a highly competent example of the dominant contemporary mode of action filmmaking outside the Hollywood blockbuster machine: flowing digital cameras in artificial sequence shots; bright colors (golds, neon pinks and greens) contrasting with deep blacks (the hero wears all-black, John Wick-style); reasonably creative choreography emphasizing physical impacts and speed but lacking the inspiration of the Hong Kong filmmakers at their best (no opera acrobatics or ingenious appropriations of found objects and natural environments) performed by competent stunt-people (with Jang apparently doing much of his own stunt-work). Above all the fights emphasize a forward momentum, paralleling Jang’s dogged pursuit of his quest. And, most interestingly, he never appears to get hurt.

For Jang’s killer is very much in the Reacher mold: he is quite obviously better (physically, intellectually, morally) than any of his opponents. This isn’t a crumbling kind of hero, like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in last year’s Kate, taking an unreal amount of abuse but staying the course until her enemy is defeated. Instead, we never believe Jang is in any real peril—our enjoyment of the action scenes comes not from suspense, but from the thrill of watching evil get punished. The only suspense there is in the film is the mystery of why the girl was kidnapped, but we can rest assured Jang will kill his way to a satisfactory answer. It’s not an enlightened approach to moral dilemmas to be sure, and the pacifist in me knows very well that it is not a good thing for individuals to run around murdering people, even if they are for an undoubted fact terrible human beings. But we’ve been living with gray areas in our action fiction for so long: anti-heroes and heroes who can’t win because the system is corrupt, and heroes who cling to a code of honor no longer relevant in our corrupted modern age, and heroes who sacrifice themselves for an infinitesimally small chance at a better tomorrow. Is it so bad to make believe ourselves into an excessively violent yet morally clear world for a little while? Yeah, probably. But it’s fun while it lasts.

Furie (Lê Văn Kiệt, 2019)

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It’s not often we get a Vietnamese movie here on Seattle Screens, much less an action movie as kinetic and thrilling as Furie, a Taken-clone starring Veronica Ngô, the actress who stole the opening moments of The Last Jedi a few years ago. Like Ong-Bok: Muay Thai Warrior, from Thailand, and The Raid, from Indonesia, before it, Furie is a further marker in the spread of high quality martial arts cinema outward from Hong Kong and Japan across Southeast Asia at a time when the Hong Kong industry itself is having its lifeblood sucked away by the vast opportunities and resources but complicated politics of the Mainland Chinese market, like Jupiter stealing the Earth’s atmosphere in the biggest action hit of the year so far. Resolutely low-scale, Furie follows a mother’s quest from the pastoral countryside to the neon-lit criminal underbelly of Saigon in search of her ten year old daughter, kidnapped by an international cartel of organ harvesters. The plot is familiar, and its beats are nothing new, though the emphasis on the femininity of its heroes and ultimate villain is unusual. But the stunts, the stunts are terrific.

Unlike Tony Jaa and Iko Uwais, Ngô is more an actor than a martial artist, though like many a great actress before her (Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, Kara Hui, Cheng Pei-pei) she is a dancer as well (she one the first season of Vietnam’s version of Dancing with the Stars). Director Lê Văn Kiệt, along with his stunt crew, do a fantastic job of covering any weaknesses as a fighter she might have, honestly I didn’t notice much of anything (unlike with Brie Larson in Captain Marvel, who just looks out of place in every fight). The fight scenes are fluid and brutal, in the bone-crushing-to-electronic-beats style that has dominated martial arts movies this century, ever since Donnie Yen discovered MMA at least. Best of all is that the fights actually build, they have a sense of rhythm and pace that is almost entirely missing from Hollywood filmmaking, and frankly from a lot of what comes out of Hong Kong these days. The final 15 minutes are spectacular without restoring to special effects or outlandish stunts: they’re simply the best fights in the movie, charged with emotion and skill and captured with a minimum of editing. It’s the best on-screen action since Paradox, and possibly since SPL 2: A Time for Consequences.

Other than that, and outside of Ngô’s soulful performance, which brings to mind some of Hui’s better work (the recent and very fine Mrs. K, for one), and the novelty (at least for us in the US) of seeing contemporary Vietnam on film, that there isn’t much to the movie. Where Paradox and SPL 2 complicate the simple missing kid/organ harvesting plots with complex conspiracies and some beautifully outlandish storytelling, Furie is a simple straight line: a mother doing the impossible for the sake of her daughter. But I’ll take the purity of this efficient, brutally exciting adventure any day over the bloated CGI artifacts and winking, middling politics of whatever corporate Hollywood blockbuster it is we’re supposed to be caring about this week.

Wolf Warrior 2 (Wu Jing, 2017)


Somewhat surprisingly, Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2 is smashing box office records across China, on pace to overtake last year’s The Mermaid as the number one Chinese film of all-time. Wu is probably the greatest Chinese martial arts star of his generation, best known here in the US for his starring role in SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, which the best action film to play here last year. He both stars and directs, as he did with Wolf Warriors, released in 2015. In the first one, he plays Leng Feng, a badass soldier who gets recruited into the Wolf Warrior brigade of the People’s Liberation Army, an elite special forces unit. During a training exercise, he and his squadmates are attacked by a multiethnic band of vicious mercenaries led by Scott Adkins who was hired by a drug lord seeking revenge on Leng for murdering his brother, and also as the cover for a scheme to steal a virus that only kills Chinese people. The film is an unabashed propaganda piece about the skills, technology and valor of the PLA, but it’s got a lot of cool jungle action and it moves along quickly.

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