Thursday, September 4, 2014

Double Shot: QUICK (2011) and THE SPY (2013)

I have lamented in the past about the untimely death of the Korean new wave and for the most part, I still find most of their movies slickly executed but utterly derivative. This is funny because the last two Korean movies that I've seen are both slickly executed and derivative, but a whole hell of a lot of fun.

QUICK (2011): A fast living member of a motorcycle gang, Han Gi-Soo (Lee Min-ki), tears through downtown Seoul with his posse, while being chased by his ex-girlfried, Chun-Sim (Kang Ye-won), and a pizza delivery guy, (Kim In-kwon), who is obsessed with Chun-Sim. While racing through the streets with the cops in hot pursuit, Gi-Soo causes a massive orgy of vehicular destruction.

Flash forward and Gi-Soo is now using his suped-up bike and mad racing skillz as a courier. After delivering a package that, unbeknownst to him, blows up an office building, he is given the job of delivering a passenger. This passenger turns out to be his ex-girlfriend Chun-Sim who is now the member of an all girl supergroup (amusingly named "The OK Girls"). As if this wasn't bad enough, after insisting she wear his helmet they are contacted by a stranger who informs Gi-Soo that there is a bomb in the helmet that will detonate if it is removed and if he does not deliver several small packages to their destinations on time. These packages, of course, are bombs that are meant to kill the anonymous caller's enemies. Naturally the cops, lead by Detective Seo (Ko Chang-seok), are hot on his tail because they think he is the mad bomber.

Yes, it is definitely derivative of SPEED (1994) and THE BULLET TRAIN (1975), there is even a direct homage to BULLET TRAIN in the final act, but director Beom-gu Cho brings so much manic energy to the film that it's hard not to get caught up in. Asian films love making their cops complete bumbling fools for comic relief, here the cops are play for a few laughs, but they are not stupid. They organize their resources and set up blockades and actually start unraveling the identity of the bomber.

This is about as close to a Hal Needham film as you are going to get these days. Yeah, I said it. Sure there is some green screen compositing during some of the action sequences, but I think this is a fact of life that we have to live with in this modern age. Plus, the compositing is so well done, that it is unnoticeable in many cases and sometimes you will swear that one thing is fake and other thing is real, only to find out you were wrong on both counts. How will would you know? The film even features outtakes and a behind-the-scenes stunt reel during the credits. It may not sound like much, but for die-hard stunt movie fans, this is like the icing on the cake, the olive in the martini, the money shot in the... err, well you get the idea. You may argue that the movie has more in common with a videogame as all it really consists of is racing from one orchestra of explosions and crashes to another, occasionally with gross lapses in logic and physics, but then again I would totally play that game. This movie wrecks so many cars that if H.B. Halicki were still alive, he would be brushing away a tear.

With a poster that promises explosions, motorcycles and people screaming, I have to admit, the film delivers on all counts... which brings us to the screaming part. If you are expecting a Korean movie that doesn't have pratfalls, screaming and wild gestures, you are going to have a long wait. In spite of the over-the-top antics, there is enough mayhem to feed your inner ADD child to the bursting point.

THE SPY (2013): Nobody does it better than Bond. Or at least that used to be true. Now everyone does Bond better than Bond. The Swedes did it with the straight faced HAMILTON (2011), and now even the Koreans are doing it with this tongue-in-cheek actioner.

Opening with top secret service agent Cheol-soo (Sol Kyung-gu) walking into a meeting with Somali pirates to negotiate the release of Korean hostages, the tension ramps up when, during negotiations, his cell phone keeps vibrating. It's his wife who is furious at him for working late and missing his mother's birthday party. This results in a things breaking down into a massive firefight. The scene plays out better than I made it out, but it gives you an idea of the kind of skewering to expect.

After some terrorists shoot a jet out of the sky with a surface-to-air missile, Cheol-soo is called into action by his section chief (Ko Chang-seok again) while in the middle of trying to give a sperm sample at a fertility clinic. Ok, stick with me here, this plays out a lot better than it sounds due to some great casting.

In one week there will be a six-party meeting in which Korea's leaders will organize a nuclear disarmament and set up the re-unification of the North and South. The man who was assassinated on the jet, was a high-ranking North Korean official who's daughter is a nuclear physicist who is looking to defect. Chul-Soo's mission, which he is forced to accept in spite of the wife's fury, is to go to Thailand and extract the way-too-hot-to-be-a-scientist daughter from the grip of the North Koreans before the terrorists or the CIA get their hands on her. Naturally things do not go according to plan. In addition to the fact that the CIA beats everyone to the punch, Kim's wife, an airline hostess (Moon So-ri), is staying at the same hotel that is overrun with agents and terrorists. Even worse, one of the terrorists, Ryan (Daniel Henney), who we know is evil because he graduated from Stanford (go bears), has the intel on Kim and his wife and puts the moves on her to eventually use as bait for Kim.

If the plot sounds familiar, it should, it is essentially a reworking of TRUE LIES (1994) into a fun, funny and genuinely entertaining film. How is it better, I hear you ask? Well, no James Cameron, no Tom Arnold, and no cringing it-could-be-your-mom stripping scenes. Better still it really fills the need for a lightning-fast paced, action filled James Bond outing, the likes of which we just do not see any more. This is everything JOHNNY ENGLISH (2003) and GET SMART (2008) should have been, without the added mugging and buffoonery in both films.

The casting is dead-on, the score is perfect and we have plenty of gadgets that are likely based on real life items. There is also a nice attention to detail with great production design that really brings home the Bond. Additionally, the script deftly parodies the formula, with bits such as the old lady who appears to be selling yogurt drinks, but who is in fact a spy who delivers secret messages. It is pretty damn funny, but as they say, it's all in the delivery.

There is some CG compositing going on in some of the scenes, but there is plenty of genuine action to keep your attention. First-time director Lee Seung-joon-I has not only a great sense of spectacle that Bond should have, but he knows how to construct the elaborate action sequences that we expect of the genre. One in particular is a lengthy scene taking place in a fine dining restaurant that is secretly the CIA headquarters. Beginning as a clandestine sting operation, the Seoul agents quickly discover that every secret agency in Asia is also represented and things quickly devolve into a beautifully composed frenzy of brawling and fire-fights.

While the some of the comedy comes from Kim trying to alternately keep his cover and protect his wife who chews his a new ass any chance she gets (she is Korean, after all), like Kim, it is kept on a leash and never overshadows the action which includes subtle in-jokes for fans of the genre. Highly entertaining from beginning to end.

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