Warner Bros. // 2006 // 116 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge David Johnson // August 8th, 2008
The battle to save their kingdom begins with one sword.
Holy @#$% what a terrific movie.
In the 10th century, ancient Korea is torn apart by war, menaced by the Killer Blade Army, which is exactly as ruthless and badass as it sounds. Their goal: to topple the ruling dynasty by murdering the royal lineage. And they've largely succeeded, whittling down all the heirs to the throne save for one, an exiled prince named Jung-Hyun (Lee Seo Jin), who has abandoned his royal duties to take up a life of fencing stolen goods.
Desperate to unite the land against the oppressors, the elders dispatch a warrior to retrieve the prince, the lovely, the lithe, the lethal Soha (Yoon Soy). With her help, the reluctant thief will summon up the king within and achieve everything he's been dreaming for.
Yeah, that last sentence was corny, but this is a film about the journey towards self-discovery above all else -- it just happens to feature some ridiculously kick-ass fight scenes, brilliant cinematography, a compelling romance, memorable villains, large-scale warfare, dudes with spiky-headed bludgeoning weapons, inspiring pre-battle speeches, water-running and internal organs exploding straight out of the body. This epic has it all, and shows that the Korean film industry knows how to output sweeping, thrilling, emotionally-impacting stuff.
Before I descend too deep into hyperbole, I'll get the (slight) criticisms out of the way. The action music is awesome, but the more sentimental score is borderline made-for-TV corny and was effective in lifting me out of the moment; there's an extended underwater sequence that has some cool ideas but is too CGI-heavy; and the final, pre-siege, rally scene is derivative of every other epic made, from 300 to Willow.
But that's it. Where those nitpicks end, the accolades begin, and there are plenty. The action is relentless and varied. Sporting both the fantastical elements found in wire-fu works like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers and more grounded hand-to-hand combat choreography, Shadowless Sword employs the well-trod conceits of Asian action and infuses them with an energy all its own. Director Kim Yoong Jun is a ninth degree black belt and I'm thinking he's applied what he knows to the fight scenes. Each one is different, and equally engaging: the flying night chase over the rooftops, Soha's multiple engagements with her female villain counterpart, Jung-Hyun's one-on-one with the mace-wielder, the brutal, bloody opening attack, the fight against the bowman and of course the Final Bad Guy smackdown, a unique mix of interesting CGI and gritty swordplay.
There are more, too. This is a film crammed with exotic combat set-pieces, and we're not talking watered-down PG-13 mayhem; limbs are snapped, throats are cut, heads fly off with geysers of blood, dudes get impaled on trees, and, the go-to effect, exploding spleens.
The action would be empty if the characters and story weren't compelling, but that is not the case here. A great story populated by great characters transfix from start to finish. Yoon Soy is a stunning beauty, graceful when fighting and empathetic in the character-centric scenes, though Soha is pretty much even-keel throughout; she wastes a lot of fools with her sword, gives Jung-Hyun the occasional pep talk and then, towards the end. Lee Seo Jin has more to do because of his arc, transforming from reluctant weenie to supreme mother@#$%&@#$ and when he does make that final step, watch out -- it's a sight to behold. Mix in some geopolitics, a blood vendetta, a simmering romance and three traumatic childhoods and you've got an epic story well-told, the match up with the top-tier performances and gonzo action.
New Line brings it's A-game to the video transfer, delivering a stunning 2.35:1 presentation that punches out the visuals with clarity and color. Lots of milieus in this film, and the DVD fails none of them. The DTS and Dolby Digital 5.1 mixes are great, both of which come in Korean, with English and Spanish subtitles. Extras: three character introductions featuring interviews with the cast members, a brief making-of documentary, a picture gallery, the international trailer and a music video.
If you're even remotely into epic martial arts fantasy, track this down immediately. A wonderful surprise.
I'm literally embarrassed that you were brought up on charges in the first place. Hand me your sword. I'm going to stab myself in the face.
Review content copyright © 2008 David Johnson; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* DTS 5.1 Surround (Korean)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Korean)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 116 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Cast Interviews
* Music Video
* Picture Gallery