In Netflix’s Korean action thriller Revenger, many people get pummeled. There’s a cursory storyline to tie all of the pummeling together, for anyone who needs context for the thrashing. In fact, “cursory” is the best way to describe the film. The acting is good enough to sell the story, the story is just good enough to hook the audience, and the filmmaking gets the job done. But the film does have one standout aspect to it, and it’s the most important one: the pummeling.
DIRECTOR: Lee Seung-won
An ex-cop travels to an island full of violent criminals to avenge the murders of his wife and child.
Revenger takes place on an island filled with criminals. I assume the plan is to let the trash sort itself out. The movie never explains and there isn’t much reason to ask. The point is that Prison Island is full of bad dudes, which is why Revenger catches your attention right off the bat with a mother and daughter being chased around. The mother shows a proclivity with a bow and arrow, while young Jin gets by on sheer rage. She’s out to avenge her father’s death at the hands of someone named Kuhn, a popular man on Prison Island. Ex-police officer Yool also has a score to settle with Kuhn.
For 90 minutes we watch Jin, who has a knack for running into trouble, lead Yool and random groups of riffraff around the island. That’s the mindless part. Once you give a moment’s thought to the story, the “ick” factor sets in. Director Lee Seung-won and writer Bruce Kahn co-opt trauma in the name of cheap entertainment too casually. We have a mother and daughter dealing with the loss of a husband and father. We have a man whose wife and child have been murdered. There is nothing else to define or motivate the characters. Revenger drives this point home with multiple flashbacks in which the characters watch their loved ones die. What the story lacks in details, Seung-won makes up for by rubbing misery in the audience’s face.
The dour nature of the story is one thing, but the film’s use of humor creates an imbalance in tone. Half the characters in Revenger are serious and driven, and the other half are cartoons. Nameless henchmen flail about as if they’re going impressions of apes. These guys look like the idiots at the zoo who make animal noises at the animals and think they’re funny. There’s a man with a hook hand. And I can’t forget the old man whose dementia causes him to hallucinate about his dead wife, which in turn forces other men to pretend to be his wife to help snap the old man out of it, often with a kiss. Hardy har har. This silliness for the sake of silliness rarely lands the way it is intended.
For all that doesn’t work in Revenger, it does get the action right. Aside from writing the script, Kahn also stars as Yool. This is his first time headlining a film, and it’s clearly meant to be a showcase for him. As a writer, it’s nothing to brag about. But as a performer, well, I’d watch him in another (hopefully better) film. Kahn plays Yool as a stoic force, saying little and emoting by glaring at people. His fists do the talking for him. Revenger comes to life during Yool’s fight scenes. Kahn is an average-size man, but he’s so economical in his movements that he’s as imposing as anyone else onscreen. Between his martial arts skills and Seung-won’s fleet camerawork, I wish Revenger had just been one 90-minute action scene.
But alas, I don’t make the movies, I just watch ’em. Revenger spends too much time on forgettable characters and misguided plot points. Viewers looking for a violent Korean action movie would be better off watching Netflix’s The Night Comes For Us. That one knows how shine a light on its strengths while minimizing its weaknesses.
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