(By Rex Baylon)
There is no archetype in film that is more hip than the lone hitman. From a laconic Alan Ladd in This Gun For Hire (1942) to the Gallic cool of Alain Delon in Le Samourai (1967) or the neurotic hipster played by Jean Reno in Leon: The Professional (1994), cinema has helped to elevate the occupation of murderer into not merely a tragic figure, as gangsters have been, but as something akin to warrior poets. Becoming a hitman, cinematically speaking, means more than just donning on the right costume and learning how to aim a gun though. The hitman figure in films must adopt a philosophy and lifestyle that is wholly alien to the average moviegoer but would not be all that unusual to an Ancient Spartan or Samurai in the Tokugawa era. To live as a hitman means ultimately to be intimate with death in all its forms.
Of course, with all that said there is a certain level of ludicrousness to the whole mythology of the hitman. First of all, to be in such an isolated state for such a prolonged period of time does not breed calm collected assassins but rather emotionally unstable psychopaths; people are social creatures and thus self-imposed social isolation goes against the grain of human nature. And then of course, there is the obvious fact that hitmen are the equivalent of ghosts; whether they succeed or fail, live or die, their personality is subsumed by the identity that they have taken upon themselves to adopt. To be a hitman means giving up not just your identity but also your humanity.
For first time director Lim Sang-Yoon’s debut feature, A Company Man (2012), the hitman sub-genre doesn’t get so much of a facelift but rather continues the trend of using the hitman as a lone wolf figure who must do battle against an uncaring bureaucratic corporation, a tendency that can be seen as far back as This Gun For Hire and continues to be a prominent thematic device in current box office fare like Looper (2012). Just as those previous directors did, Lim places the conflict in his picture within the milieu of a country with a wide gulf between rich and poor.
Playing the protagonist, popular television and film star So Ji-Sub is yet again cast as a tall, dark, and mysterious leading man. The twist though to the character he is playing in Lim’s film is that Ji Hyeong-Do (So Ji-Sub) is, on the surface, a normal looking salaryman working for an international metal trading company. Yet underneath that thin veneer of white walled sterility is a far more sinister organization run secretly in the bowels of a modern skyscraper. This shadow corporation, who seem to be deeply connected to a cabal of even more powerful shadowmen, have at their employ a roster of well-trained assassins who kill on command and have strung Hyeong along under the auspices of being part of a family.
It may be a sign of the times but the move to take the hitman and place them firmly as just another cog in the machine is a frightening metaphor if one thinks about it. And also whereas the archetypical hitman character was far more concerned about following their own moral code Hyeong has quite banal concerns, specifically job security. By taking a figure that was once considered the perennial outsider and making him a mere employee to a powerful global conglomerate, chillingly illustrates just how cold and uninviting the world is now to misfits, fugitives, and the offbeat. Returning to the reality of the world that the film is set in, which is very close to our own reality, as the economic scale becomes more imbalanced quaint notions of individuality and “being one’s own boss” may be a thing of the past.
Hyeong-do is like all previous cinematic hitmen before him in that he lives a solitary existence, following an almost clockwork routine from day to day. Get up, go to work, kill a few targets, come home, eat his ready made frozen dinner, iron his white shirts to crispness, and then bed by nine. Hyeong’s banal life is posh compared to the ascetic lifestyle of Alain Delon in Le Samourai but it’s no less lonely or sad. Now of course as this is a commercial film there needs to be a romantic subplot and so the picture introduces Yoo Mi-Yeon (Lee Mi-Yeon) who is not only connected to Hyeong through the fact that she is the mother of a young upstart kid that Hyeong opts not to kill but she also coincidentally happened to be a pop star who Hyeong was a fan of when he was a teenage boy delivering food on his motorbike. Their budding romance is the seed from which a lot of the later betrayal and destruction will stem from. Yet the scenes with the two together are grasping for a level of drama that doesn't fit with the story and makes Mi-Yeon merely a device to get Hyeong from point A to point B.
Although Hyeong does find happiness with Mi-Yeon, karma must intervene and knock down all their carefully laid out plans for the future as the police begin snooping around Hyeong and the company he works for. These developments quickly escalate and Hyeong soon begins to question the simple commands that his bosses give him till eventually the organization that he would lay his life on the line for wants him dead. While the showdown between Hyeong and the cold-blooded company that once fed and clothed him is a well done action set-piece it does have the “bigger is better” syndrome that many current action films suffer from. With bullets spraying, blood splattering on the walls, and a seemingly never-ending cavalcade of opponents the film devolves into videogame mode. A Company Man is a fine addition to the genre, but Lim misfires by not trusting his audience and offering up the well-worn cliché of a big bang shootout. What separates the hitman subgenre from typical action films and makes it such a compelling genre is not the spectacle of death, but the interior drama of a character who has become more machine than man and their journey to get back a little of their humanity. Underneath all the gunplay and the trite romantic subplot was that better film.