Monday, November 07, 2011

"Ajeossi": a review

The 2010 Korean actioner "Ajeossi" (called "The Man from Nowhere" in the US) stars doe-eyed, fresh-faced Won Bin as a hardass ex-Black Ops dude named Cha Tae-shik who quits the service after losing his wife and unborn child to an assassin. Cha now runs a quiet pawnshop where he befriends Somi, a cute little waif who lives next door. Somi's mom, meanwhile, is a heroin addict who is alternately verbally abusive to and neglectful of Somi.

The story is a bullet-ridden Dickens tale, with Cha as The Benefactor and Somi as The Oppressed Child in Need of Rescue. The mom is killed early on in the film by gangsters who traffic in human organs (the gruesome result is displayed for us, tailgate-party-style); Somi gets kidnapped and Won Bin's character reverts to badass mode to track her down. Many people die along the way, and the police are never far behind.

Simple plot, simple motivations. At this point, you can probably predict the ending, because the film follows action-movie boilerplate with unquestioning faithfulness. I had my doubts, while watching "Ajeossi," as to whether Won Bin could convincingly pull off the portrayal of a hard-edged character. In the end, I think he succeeded, and it's a testament to his acting ability that he did. Your mileage may vary, however; Won Bin doesn't look particularly gritty. Perhaps he can't.

That said, I found myself impressed by the fight choreography, especially the intense knife fight with the deadliest of the bad guys; the final bit of gunplay was-- despite some egregious continuity errors (e.g., a car's buckled hood that miraculously unbuckles most of the way)-- also exhilarating to behold. The filmmakers borrowed liberally from the Hollywood action-movie palette: Cha Tae-shik has the suicidal bitterness of a Martin Riggs, the smoldering anger and unerring instincts of a Jack Bauer, the unarmed fighting skills of a Jason Bourne, and the same sort of bullet-extracting friends-in-low-places as Robert De Niro's Sam in "Ronin." As the latest instantiation of that archetype, Won Bin's Cha Tae-shik is a worthy successor. And since the film's ending is a good setup for a sequel, I imagine there'll be an "Ajeossi 2" somewhere down the line.

While "Ajeossi" doesn't hold a candle to the more adult, pensive, 1990s-era "Shiri" (the movie that introduced me to Korean action films), it's got its simple heart in the right place. I recommend it.

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