In this 200th anniversary year of the birth of Charles Dickens (February 7, 1812), his lengthy, beautifully crafted novels will be celebrated around the globe. In our fast-paced, often frantic society, actually sitting down and savouring a master’s words or music (from beginning to end without any interruption) is almost unheard of. The genius practitioners of the long form have the gift of maintaining interest even as the work in question—many who’ve never actually read or listened to the result often claim to “have heard of it”—takes on heavenly lengths with an artistic rather than spiritual root.
In filmmaker Kim Jee-woon’s latest offering, the generous runtime (nearly two-and-a-half hours) begins with narrative promise but soon settles for near-ridiculous plot twists in order set up the next sadistic rape, murder, torture or terror most foul.
Screenwriter Park Hoon-jung’s third completed script concerns a brutal serial killer (where the bounty of nubile women and their dismembered flesh frequently satisfies his own lust when alive and screaming then finds its way to the dinner table to be savoured with a fine wine and a very special friend) whose latest victim’s husband is an undercover cop: outraged, he decides to settle the score on his own time rather than grieve and move on.
Lee Byung-un playing Kim Soo-hyeon digs into the revenge flick with a fascinating combination of determination to one-up the killer, matinée idol good looks (belying his own violent acts) and selfishly uncaring attitude for all of the carnage and mayhem he might have prevented had he not completed the vigilante task at the first opportunity. In the famed Matt Helm secret agent series, the hero frequently opined that one should never aim a weapon at anyone unless planning to use it to full effect—incongruously, that sage bit of wisdom is lost on the career “good guy.” And so when opportunity knocks again and again, it becomes clear after the first riveting 30 minutes that the remainder of film—barring any surprises or fully formed subplots—will find any excuse to let both hunter and hunted live to die another day.
In the heinous villain’s role, Choi Min-sik is evil incarnate as personified by Kyung-chul. The image of Hannibal Lecter at his most gruesome is never far away from the horrific acts as they burst their bloody way onto the screen. À la James Bond, one bit of high-tech wizardry is employed: a GPS “pill” lodged in the bastard’s guts makes keeping tabs on the murderous creep child’s play in the early going. Did anyone think he’d never get wise?—but that “discovery” and, er, putrid evacuation allowed for the chase to continue and the body count to rise.
As events came to a head, the artistic trust started shooting blanks. Who could believe a retired chief of police would fall for the “I’ve got a delivery” con to gain entry to his tony house? In fact, the longer the combatants played at “I can be meaner than you” the more they appeared to be cut from the same cloth. So Kim and his talented crew (nothing at all “fake” about the body parts and crimson goo; Mowg’s original score ranging from fuzzy flute and harpsichord to full-press action sequences helped pass the time) had more than enough scenes to demonstrate their skill from the technical side, but the possibility of also saying something important about the notion of senseless revenge and inhuman slaughter was overwhelmed by the incessant gore and shallow characterization. JWR