In the 2011 South Korean movie War Of The Arrows, a historical drama about a master archer who practically wins an entire war by himself, there’s a scene where Manchurian raiders storm into a village, killing indiscriminately and taking all the survivors hostage. And in one shot, one of those soldiers snatches a baby out of a screaming woman’s arms and casually tosses it into a well. It’s a stinging, brutal moment, and the movie treats it like a quick aside. We don’t see the woman again; nobody vows to avenge the baby. It’s just a quick little moment to help establish that these Manchurians are bad guys. But if you’ve been raised on clean, feel-good American movies, a moment like that resonates like a slap to the face. War Of The Arrows, I should point out, was the highest-grossing movie in South Korea in 2011. It was a legit blockbuster. They don’t play in South Korea.
From the mid-’80s to the early-’90s, action-movie fans who were sick of Hollywood bombast and wanted something darker and grittier had to turn to Hong Kong cinema. Directors like John Woo, Ringo Lam, and, eventually, Johnnie To were reinventing the form, crafting glamorous and melodramatic gun operas and showing no reservations about killing their heroes. Nobody had ever seen anything like those movies, and Hollywood directors did what they could to rip them off. Woo even had a nice run as a Hollywood filmmaker, ripping himself off, often excellently. Hong Kong action movies are still great, and Woo, Lam, and To are all still working. But right now, South Korea is something like what Hong Kong was during that golden era.
Korean action movies are something else. As an American viewer, it can be hard to wrap your mind around how a crowd-pleasing melodrama, with lots of broad slapstick comedy and aw-cute moments, will also feature geysers of blood and people being tortured to death. In a movie like The Chaser, you can spend the whole time rooting for a deeply flawed hero to save a woman from the villain only to watch that woman get horribly murdered with just a few minutes left. A lot of these movies are excellent, with kinetic pacing and deeply felt performances and artful cinematography. And watching them, you should absolutely prepare yourself to feel like you’ve been kicked in the balls. I’m no expert in Korean culture, and I’d love to know why this one country produces movies that are so nasty and visceral, whether it’s a by-product of the anxiety that comes from having a desperate and unpredictable nuclear-armed hostile country to the north or what. (A lot of South Korean action movies revolve around North Korean agents causing havoc south of the border.) Right now, all I know is that these fuckers are making some heavy shit.
Case in point: The Man From Nowhere, the highest-grossing movie, foreign or domestic, in South Korea in 2010. (For comparison’s sake, America’s highest-grossing movie that same year was Toy Story 3.) The Man From Nowhere is a raw fucking film. It tells its story with an all-out intensity that no American action movie could ever hope to match. It gets complicated, but here are the broad strokes: A quiet, mysterious loner lives by himself in an apartment building and runs a pawnshop. The only person he ever talks to is one neighbor, a little girl whose mother is a reckless heroin addict. He acts annoyed whenever the little girl comes around, but he looks after her. The mother steals some heroin from some gangsters, and so they kidnap both the mother and the girl. And they’re not just drug traffickers; they’re also organ harvesters, and they plan to do some bad things to these poor people. So the pawnshop owner, who happens to be a former special forces assassin, has to take on this entire merciless criminal syndicate to get his friend back.
None of this is especially original. In The Professional, Jean Reno was an icy killer who bonded with his little-girl neighbor and ultimately protected her from the sadistic gangsters who murdered her family. In Taken, Liam Neeson had to get an innocent girl back from the kidnappers who treated her like a mere commodity. And there’s even a bit of Frankenstein in the dynamic between the mostly silent killer and the friendly little kid. But The Man From Nowhere is great in the way that most action movies are great: It takes an old story, and it tells the hell out of it. As the hero, Won Bin, who hasn’t appeared in another movie since, is handsome as hell, and he’s got nicely cut black suits and Strokes hair. But he’s also great at conveying coiled stillness and quiet, leonine menace. His enemies are a vivid, motley array of monsters, my favorite being the floppy-haired dandy who tries to make the case that there’s nothing ethically wrong with selling kids’ organs even as the hero is shooting a nail gun into his leg.
The actual action isn’t as carefully choreographed as you might see in a Hong Kong movie, but it’s stark and ferocious. Won Bin only reveals his fighting skills bit by bit—snatching a knife out of an assailant’s hand, casually knocking out a larger opponent. His enemies persistently underestimate him, but the best fighter among them seems to realize right away that he’s formidable: “He didn’t flinch when I fired the gun.” Director Lee Jeong-beom films all of this with sure-handed confidence. When Won Bin beats up a police station full of cops, we see only flashes of it on security cameras. Later, we follow the hero as he crashes out of a second story window, a shot accomplished when both Won Bin and the cameraman actually jumped out of that window, with the assistance of digitally removed wires, and landed on the ground.
The movie establishes, over and over, that the bad guys truly are human scum. We see a teenage girl bidding goodbye to her friends, believing she’s going home to her family, and then we see her a few scenes later as a dead body on a hospital slab. One cop who interrogates Won Bin tries to let him know what happened to the little girl’s mother: “Her heart was beating when they got her eyes. Ripped out of her head while she was still alive!” Lee Jeong-beom takes his time to build up to the long fight scenes, and when they happen they’re tense and vicious and chaotic. You get the sense, watching them, that the characters really are born killers but that they’re also struggling hard for survival, that they can be hurt and killed. The scenes build, but much of the time, they end with outside forces interrupting things and keeping the fighters from finishing each other off.
It all works its way to an epic and brutal brawl that’s easily my favorite movie knife fight of all time. Won Bin, bursting with quiet rage, takes on an entire room full of armed goons, their sheer number threatening to overwhelm him. (In that way, it’s got a few things in common with the famous hammer fight from Oldboy, another of the great Korean action scenes.) With his knife, the hero makes sure to go for major arteries, leaving us with the sight of bodies convulsing as blood empties out of them. Even after we’ve seen all the evil that these henchmen have done, I catch myself feeling a bit bad for the goons. And that builds up to a masterful final one-on-one between Won Bin and the chief henchman, who puts down his gun to give his opponent a fighting chance. Altogether, it’s an absolute classic action scene, one that can hang with any fight in any movie ever made, anywhere.
Last year, New Line bought the rights to remake The Man From Nowhere, and I cannot imagine any Hollywood director coming up with anything as brutally majestic as that knife fight. I’m not picking The Man From Nowhere for this column because it’s an especially influential movie, though its success might’ve helped lead Korean filmmakers to keep things grimy. I’m picking it because it’s a great movie and because it’s indicative of a larger trend: these unrelenting, uncompromising South Korean action movies that are so far beyond anything we’ve got going on at home. The South Korean directors mostly haven’t had the chance to come to Hollywood the way their Hong Kong forebears did, though Bong Joon-ho made the Korean/American co-productions Snowpiercer and Okja, and Kim Jee-woon, one of the country’s greatest action directors, weirdly ended up making the just-okay Schwarzenegger comeback vehicle The Last Stand. But there’s a whole world of South Korean movies out there. A lot of them are streaming for free right now on Hulu, and I suggest you dive in.
Other notable 2010 action movies: The Japanese director Takashi Miike, a guy who’d become famous making nonsensically violent silliness, dropped the whole provocateur act and made a straight-up classic with 13 Assassins, one of the greatest samurai movies ever made. 13 Assassins is brutal, exciting work of old-school filmcraft, and it has one of the most detestable villains that’s ever been put on film. If you haven’t seen it, I cannot recommend it highly enough.
The year’s best American action movie wasn’t a big-budget blockbuster; it was the straight-to-DVD sequel Undisputed III: Redemption, one of the all-time great underground-fighting movies. In Undisputed III, Scott Adkins returns as Yuri Boyka, the Russian prison-fighter villain from the previous movie. But this time, he’s the hero, and he gets involved in a deeply implausible global prison-fighter tournament in which he eventually takes on the Chilean badass Marko Zaror. It just rules.
In Hollywood, there were some encouraging attempts at reviving old-school action movies. Sylvester Stallone rounded up a dazzling cast of action heroes for his fun but disappointing gimmick movie The Expendables, a film that would’ve been a whole lot more fun if Stallone had put any care into his fight scenes. And Robert Rodriguez built an all-star cast around Danny Trejo, giving him his first real starring role in Machete, a movie that’s literally adapted from one of the trailers that aired between movies in Rodriguez and Tarantino’s Grindhouse. Machete was sillier than it had to be, but I like the scene where Trejo comes crashing through a hospital window after swinging on a bad guy’s entrails.
Rodriguez was also a producer on Predators, a low-key franchise reboot that was a lot better than it had to be. The year before he started showing up in Fast & Furious movies, the Rock made a cool, existential B-movie called Faster. Neil Marshall’s Centurion was a decent period piece about Roman soldiers taking on Celtic fighters. And both Joe Carnahan’s deeply unnecessary A-Team adaptation and the Hughes brothers’ post-apocalyptic blind-samurai Denzel Washington vehicle The Book Of Eli turned out to be watchable.
Still, you will not be shocked to learn that most of the best action movies were coming from abroad. Hong Kong had a big year. Ip Man 2, which moved the action from mainland China to Hong Kong, was a worthy follow-up to its classic predecessor, and it had a few truly great fights between Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung. Yen also played the lead in Legend Of The Fist: The Return Of Chen Zhen, a sort of jazz-age superhero movie that plays like a Hong Kong version of The Rocketeer or something. Yuen Woo-ping, who’d become a star fight choreographer in Hollywood, returned to directing with the madcap epic True Legend. Veteran action auteur Tsui Hark made a blockbuster with Detective Dee And The Mystery Of The Phantom Flame, a slick and entertaining period fantasy. And Gallants, like Kung Fu Hustle before it, was a loving parody of ’70s kung fu movies. It also gave us the image of former Ruff Ryders rapper Jin as a martial arts bully.
Beyond The Man From Nowhere, South Korea produced a pair of dark, gritty, occasionally hard-to-watch thrillers. In The Yellow Sea, a cabdriver from the area between North Korea and Russia gets sent south to commit a murder, and the double-crosses start piling up. It’s got one of the best, least predictable car chases I’ve ever seen, as well as a fight where a gangster takes out a whole horde of attackers with a beef bone. And I Saw The Devil is an almost unbearably tense cat-and-mouse revenge movie about an indiscriminate killer and the cop who’s chasing him.
But 2010 wasn’t just about Hong Kong and South Korea. Great action movies were coming from everywhere. Brazil had Elite Squad: The Enemy Within, the even-more-successful, even-more-effective sequel to the 2007 blockbuster, with the original movie’s brutal cop taking on a crew of even-worse corrupt cops. Thailand had BKO: Bangkok Knockout, a kinetic and absurd fight movie about a team of martial arts students who have to fight their way out of a sadistic death trap. France had the twisty, stressful Point Blank, about a nurse on a frantic quest to save his kidnapped pregnant wife. Japan had Takeshi Kitano’s lyrical gang-war bloodbath Outrage. And even Australia had Tomorrow, When The War Began, an endearingly silly take on the Red Dawn model of teenage guerilla fighters going to war against improbable foreign invaders.
Next time: The Fast & Furious movies become one of the best running blockbuster franchises and achieve true greatness with Fast Five. (The Raid: Redemption technically came out in 2011 in Indonesia, but I’m going to consider it a 2012 movie, since that’s when it came out in America. I know it’s cheating, but I really want to write about both movies.)