By ELLSWORTH BENCHWOOD
Like Directors Park Chan-wook and Bong Joon-hoo, Kim Jee-woon demonstrated high style across a range of genres in his early 2000’s South Korean movies.
During this time he passed on opportunities to helm Hollywood movies, up until 2012 when he accepted the invitation to direct Arnold Schwarzenegger (in his first starring role since completing his final term as governor of California) in “The Last Stand”, a modern day shoot-‘em up western. Kim’s decision to embrace a popcorn movie as his English-language debut makes sense given the depth and darkness of the movie he had just finished, “I Saw the Devil” (2010).
Park’s 2003 “Oldboy” was a huge hit in South Korea and a critically revered entry in the extreme-revenge drama genre. Kim’s “I Saw the Devil” deploys comparable extremity in its examination of a theme commonly explored in revenge stories, the destruction of the protagonist’s soul caused by his own need for vengeance. Where “Oldboy” examined the inevitability of retribution, “I Saw the Devil” shifts the focus to the nature of evil itself, specifically its disinterest in retribution, redemption, justice or anything but destruction.
The plot can be described as Jason Bourne meets Freddy Kruger. The great Choi Min-sik (who starred in “Oldboy”) plays a depraved serial killer who abducts a pretty young motorist who is stranded on a country road with a flat tire. He might have passed on this particular crime of opportunity had he known that his victim’s fiancé (played by the handsome young Lee Byung-hun) is a highly skilled, combat-trained, sharp-suit wearing government secret agent.
Lee tracks down Choi, finds him in the middle of the act of torturing his next victim, and beats him to a pulp with a flurry of professionally delivered punches and kicks. While Choi is unconscious, Lee breaks his arm, shoves a small transmitter capsule down his throat, and leaves an envelope full of cash, presumably to cover Choi’s hospital bill.
Lee’s plan to stalk (via GPS technology lodged in the unwitting Choi’s stomach) and torment Choi, to make him feel the fear and pain to which he subjected his many victims, works up to a point. Choi wakes up from each subsequent beating confused, frustrated, angry and in physical pain (with a different appendage broken each time), but never remorseful or afraid. The stakes rise when Choi figures out the identity and motivation of his inverted guardian-angel, as does Choi’s resolve to demonstrate that he can take anything that Lee can dish out.
The movie is relentlessly gruesome (particularly Lee’s treatment of a cannibalistic Choi acolyte) but the extremity is in service of the effectively rendered theme of true evil being indefatigable because, by definition, it has nothing to lose.
After years of immersion in the dark depths of “I Saw the Devil”, a dip in the thematic kiddie-pool of “The Last Stand” probably sounded pretty enticing to Director Kim. Arnold plays the sheriff of a sleepy Arizona border town that stands in the path of a prisoner who has escaped FBI custody and is fleeing to Mexico in a muscle car. This particular prisoner (played by Eduardo Noriega, from Guillermo Del Toro’s fantastic “The Devil’s Backbone”) happens to be a Mexican drug cartel kingpin with the means to have hired a well-armed gang of military-grade mercenaries (led by Peter Stormare, hilarious) to clear the way.
There’s nothing new here, but the competence is uniform and enjoyable, with Johnny Knoxville dutifully goofy as the local hermit whose barn doubles as a “museum” of heavy artillery, the rock solid Luis Guzman as the most experienced and jaded/pessimistic of Arnold’s three deputies, and the always great Forest Whitaker as the harried FBI agent in charge. Even as the bullets start flying and the body count rolls into double-digits, Kim manages to keep the tone light, thanks to the comedic contributions of the stellar cast, right down to Arnold’s obligatory “I’m getting too old for this” type quips.
The star of the show, however, is clearly Kim’s skill in shooting high-speed car chases and gunfights. The rest of the world might laugh at us silly Americans and our silly American movies with car chases and gunfights, but just like anything else, car chases and gunfights can be done poorly and they can be done well. With “The Last Stand”, Kim embraces the silly American action movie conventions and makes the whole exercise thrilling and fun to watch – Arnold was no doubt tickled that his first post-Governator starring vehicle would be directed by an artist foreign to the genre, much less this country.
Kim, Park and Bong have all professed a desire to continue working in South Korea on smaller movies, with occasional forays into the bigger-budget Hollywood system. So far, the movie-going community is already richer for it.