Monday, January 26, 2015

Review: Straightforward Action in NO TEARS FOR THE DEAD

By Hieu Chau

Writer-director Lee Jeong-beom made a big splash in 2010 when his confidently made action feature The Man from Nowhere became a box office hit in South Korea. It made a believable action star out of its lead, Won Bin, and had an emotional core that helped it lean closer towards other, well-established action films of its ilk such as Luc Besson’s Leon: The Professional (1994) or Tony Scott’s Man on Fire (2004). Lee follows a similar format with his newest ultraviolent follow up, No Tears for the Dead, which at times feels like it could have been another Tony Scott film.

After accidentally killing a young girl during a hit, Gon (Jang Dong-gun) is traumatized by the event and becomes a recluse. Soon, he is assigned by his contractors to then eliminate the young girl’s mother, causing further conflict for the damaged hitman. Meanwhile, another subplot involving triads and corporate crime is also added in to make sense of the violence that’s committed on screen.

No Tears for the Dead is as straightforward as it gets and doesn’t play around with its formulaic base. The film is a little slow to start off with but finds itself in comfortable territory as soon as it gives Gon permission to tap into his skills as an accomplished hitman. Lacking in No Tears for the Dead however is the emotional value that audiences gained from witnessing an assassin with a heart of gold do anything to save the life of an unwitting child. Gon’s guilt over the murder of the child inevitably distances him from her, and ultimately the audience from Gon. It’s made to feel meaningful but doesn’t contain the response that Lee would hope to draw from audiences who were drawn into The Man from Nowhere. The only time that it possibly could is through the pain and anguish of loss expressed by the child’s mother (Kim Min-hee). Otherwise, Gon, for most of the film, remains a cold-blooded, emotionless killer and doesn’t ever evolve beyond that (he'd make a great Terminator actually but they already have Lee Byung-hun filling that role). Flashabcks to Gon’s childhood attempt to make the character more pitiable but they do little to service the character or the film.

Its plot and characters therefore remain largely underdeveloped and don’t materialise into anything particularly substantial though such is the case for many action films. It’s largely underwritten, forcibly pushes relationships that don’t quite matter in the grand scheme of things, and expects its audience to believe the implausibility of Gon retaining an awfully thick Korean accent despite being raised as a child in, of all places, Minnesota, America.

Lee’s direction of action, meanwhile, is both exhilarating and exhausting. In one impressive scene, Gon fights off attacking intruders in a small apartment and does so with inventiveness and flair yet in that same scene, the way Lee choses to cut the action makes it hard to fully absorb. It’s almost as if Lee was inspired by The Raid (2011) and what it did to make action feel unique and dynamic but wasn’t able to fully accentuate it in the editing room. Action can at times feel a tad sloppy because of this yet Lee is able to harness enough impact from the action to make it appear visceral.

Had this been made in America, Jang Dong-gun could have easily been replaced by Denzel Washington and it would still be a fairly standard, albeit enjoyable slice of action cinema. No Tears for the Dead might not resonate with audiences on an emotional level but does offer a decent amount of action, even if it is sloppy here and there.

Still, Lee does manage to achieve something else with the film. Given its international cast, production values and very Hollywood sheen, it may actually appear that Lee could be jockeying for a potential crossover onto American soil. If so, No Tears for the Dead should get the notice from American studios looking for a hungry new filmmaker to helm their next action vehicle.

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