Well Go Usa // 2010 // 119 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Ike Oden (Retired) // March 14th, 2011
Nothing to lose, nothing to compromise.
CHA Tae-shik (Won Bin, Mother) is a former Special Forces agent who stepped out of the game when his loved ones were killed in a hit meant for him. Nowadays, he's a destitute pawn shop owner whose only friend is neighbor So-mi (Kim Sae-Ron), a little girl with a troubled home life. When So-mi's mother steals drugs from an international crime syndicate, the bad guys kidnap So-mi along with her. Now it's up to CHA to get them back -- with guns and knives and fast-as-hell martial arts moves.
The Man From Nowhere has the same basic storyline of every other action film you've ever seen -- a hardened badass finds his softer side through befriending an innocent child, some bad guys kidnap the kid, and those bad guys get messed up real good. Commando, Taken, Man On Fire, and half of Chuck Norris' resume hinge on saving an innocent through some very creative killing.
The Man From Nowhere approaches this formula very differently. The first two acts of the film have more in common with neo-noir character studies and Michael Mann crime capers than a body-count action picture. The audience knows CHA is a badass (despite a very emo haircut), but director Jeong-beom Lee, in his second film, keeps the action off screen, building up the drama instead.
If this was an American revenge-action movie, the script would have to have the action star bashing heads right out of the gate. The Man From Nowhere begins with an excellent club-based action/heist scene centered around the film's minor characters -- cops and crooks, respectively -- and a stakeout gone awry that establishes the underbelly of Korea as well as the martial arts fighting style that every character seems adept at. What's most innovative about the sequence is that it doesn't feature the film's central badass at all. Instead, it establishes the idea that if everybody and their cousins are badasses in this movie, CHA must make John Rambo look like Jerry Lewis.
He does, actually. Despite a wimpy haircut, CHA is a force of nature. We don't see him doing his thing until his second-act breaking point, but we taste the aftermath of his rumbles. There's a lot to be said for buildup and anticipation in action films. So much of the genre is controlled by stereotypical beats. The Man From Nowhere approaches its action hero's abilities much in the same way Spielberg approached the shark in Jaws, a less is more approach that pays off. When CHA loses his s -- t fifty minutes in and brings down hell on the bad guys, there is absolute power behind it. That the action sequences are fluidly shot, free of bad CGI, and have star Won Bin performing his own stunts will have old-school fans losing their s -- t, too.
The Man From Nowhere hits all the right action film tropes -- charismatic villains, creative gunplay, witty banter, etc -- while taking a familiar page from the Shane Black (Kiss Kiss Bang Bang) playbook by interspersing noir elements throughout. Unlike Black's work, however, the film isn't a lighthearted action-romp occupied by gumshoe archetypes, but a brutal, hard-edged fusion between the traditional action film formula and the stark reality of crime-noir. From detailed flashbacks showing the events that damned Nowhere's anti-hero -- whose back story shares similarities to Lethal Weapon's Martin Riggs -- to child slavery and organ harvesting, the film leaves no horror uncovered. In turn, the film's dramatic elements never slacken or feel like cheesy clichés.
Thankfully, writer/director Lee pushes the film's more disturbing sequences just far enough not to fault the movie's tone. This isn't a feast of nihilism like other Korean action film hybrids, such as Old Boy, though it often reaches similar levels of intensity. The film is formulaic action at its core and plays by the rules just closely enough not to alienate purists. Quite the opposite, actually -- it will keep the most ardent hero-worshipers on the edge of their seats, slack jawed and wondering what will happen next.
If I have any complaint about the film, it is that it too often succumbs to the flaws of its noir roots. The film contains a confusing number of bad guys all dressed in similar garb that are often hard to keep track of. Not only that, but for a "they took his daughter" style revenge film, the narrative is incredibly convoluted.
The action fan in me counterbalances these nay sayings with sheer geekiness. Let me just point out that the blurb on the back of the box extolling "the best cinematic knife fight to hit screens in years" is not hyperbole, folks. It takes whatever half-assed, shaky cam fight scenes were on display in The Expendables and makes them look like a fan-made YouTube video.
The DVD lives up to the greatness of the material. The anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is beautiful, sporting gorgeous neo-noir (i.e. muted) colors and a very clean image with minimal flaws. The sound mix is even better, clear in dialogue and music while heavy of whiz-bang effects. The sound of knife slices and gunshots are particularly exquisite).
Extras are pretty standard fare: a making of featurette, a highlight reel, and some trailers. The featurette is actually four different behind-the-scenes docs edited together into collective 29 minutes, focusing on the film's stunts, the stars, and the writer/director. They're fairly interesting for puff pieces, but I was left wanting more (a commentary track, blooper reel, anything).
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Well Go Usa
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Korean)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (Korean)
Running Time: 119 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R