South Korea is currently experiencing a renaissance in film production thanks to a relatively stable economy, the easy availability of technology, and more than anything else, a flat out desire to have their own film identity and not be seen as a dumping ground for Hong Kong Actioners and third rate Japanese gangster movies.
It makes sense that Korean cinema would launch into the international stage with action cinema. Action flicks have wide appeal, and generally offer a story that is easy to follow irrespective of the culture viewing it, and often put action ahead of dialogue so that translation is relatively simple. Consider, if you will, that Korean audiences probably wouldn’t have too much trouble with a dubbed Die Hard, but would have lots and lots of trouble with a dubbed My Dinner With Andre’ and you get the idea. Nuances in language, phraseology, and emotion render talky films very hard to adapt to another language in post production, but an explosion in Korea is the same as an explosion in Hollywood.
2003’s Tube offers a glimpse at what Korean action cinema may offer in the near future, but inevitably shows just much maturation is needed before Korean films will make the rounds in international festivals and, ultimately, US theaters.
Like Shim Hyng Rae’s god-awful Reptillian (AKA Yongarry 2001) was a knock off of the Devlin/Emmerich Godzilla, Tube is a knock off of Steven Segal (Mountain Dew spokesman and Mu-mu enthusiast) vehicle Under Siege 2 in that terrorists have taken over a train and threaten to blow it up should the government not acquiesce to a series of demands. Before we get to that, though, we have to meet the characters.
The film opens when someone named “The Bishop” is disembarking from a KAL jet in Seoul as he walks through the customs gate and into the main lobby of the airport a multitude of identically dressed men produce automatic weapons and kill all of his bodyguards. The police arrive and a massive shootout takes place. This is really well filmed, actually, but goes on way too long to sustain interest. I mean, we haven’t even met the first speaking character yet and there are already seven billions bullets whizzing across the screen. Naturally, the police cannot seem to hit any of the identically dressed gangsters/terrorists but do a fine job catching bullets.
I had a flash back to old episodes of The A-Team.
Meanwhile, once Bishop is relieved of his entourage the main villain, T, makes Bishop hand over a flash memory stick then shoots him in the chest.
In the middle of this chaos we meet the other star of the film, rogue police detective J (Identifiable for the entire film for the unlit cigarette dangling from his mouth and his tendency to wear a battered leather flight jacket. Someone crashing a black Chevy van through the window and the gangsters/terrorists leap inside and make their getaway with the police in hot pursuit.
J appears, takes a dropped gun and shoots one of the gangster/terrorists. T sees J. They make angry eye contact just before the gangster terrorists take off.
The next scene finds T in the office of a stereotypical Police Captain. He berates T for breaking procedure and acting a rogue and dangerous officer. Seoul is not his personal shooting gallery, yadda-yadda-yadda. This scene is a mainstay in police movies. The dialogue could have been ripped from any one of them. T ignores the screaming Police Captain and mumbles something about his duty.
Cut to the upper torso of a woman twirling a playing card. She makes several statements about finding the right man’s heart and worming her way in, or something. Meanwhile she twirls around a playing card. I think she’s supposed to be a pickpocket, but the movie bungles her role so badly I started thinking she was just a nutty vagrant, then a busker (she carriers a guitar case for the entire movie), or another cop. The script never really defines who or what she is.
We get the credits now with the fingers twirling the card in the background.
Now we’re in a subway station. Meet K, she’s the girl who was working the card in the credits. K is being accosted by a Korean guy (and his friends). Since he has no name we will call him Gum Chewing Guy since he chews gum (and has a nasty habit of spitting on the floor then picking it back up and eating it).
What’s up with that?
He wants money from K. For what we have no idea. She says that she’ll have all the money she is supposed to turn over in a few days if they just leave her alone. Gum Chewing Guy says something nasty and she punches him in the face.
Er… I think.
We cut to J ambling through the subway station with an unlit cigarette dangling from his lips. K notices him (hey, where’s Gum Chewing Guy?) As she walks past J she holds out a lighter, but doesn’t make eye contact. J looks at the lighter and says he doesn’t need it. K says he needs to light the cigarette to smoke it. He stares at her for a minute then walks off.
Oh wait… I smell symbolism… Could it be a dead wife in J’s past?..
Cut back to Gum Chewing Guy and his friends. He’s apparently unconscious and his friends are all doing what appear to be handstands. Why? I have no idea. Anyway, he stirs and realizes that K has pilfered his, and their wallets.
Cut to K dropping a heap of cash into a beggar’s hat. She then drops in Gum Chewing Guy’s wallet.
Just what the hell is going on here? Now, this ambling around the stations goes on and on and on and on for like 20 minutes. Finally Gum Chewing Guy appears before K and demands his wallet back. He also threatens to beat the shit out of her, which, considering she apparently knocked him unconscious with a single punch last time doesn’t seem like the more threatening threat. K blathers something about “the guy behind him” and when Gum Chewing Guy turns around, there’s J.
Gum Chewing Guy freaks out and starts running with J in hot pursuit. They have a short, but well shot, fight on the platform, and finally down on the tracks.
The commotion is noticed in Seoul’s subway control room (which will feature more frequently as the movie goes on) and one of the attendants recognizes J. The crew cheer him on as he beats Gum Chewing Guy for a while, then a train runs them both over.
Actually, J holds Gum Chewing Guy down until the train stops. There is enough space beneath the carriage to lay safely, or so we see. Gum Chewing Guy freaks out, suitably, I must say, but J doesn’t care. He handcuffs Gum Chewing Guy to the train and walks away.
J hasn’t shown anything resembling an emotion yet.
We cut back to the office of the Police Captain, and again he is freaking out and screaming. J stalks off. Meanwhile K has J’s apartment key (and apparently his bag, which we see only in the credits sequence… this is where I started thinking she was a pickpocket). K lets herself into J’s apartment, and it’s a pigsty. More dead wife symbolism here if you’re keeping track.
We cut back to J walking home. When he opens the door his apartment is clean and tidy. J shows no emotion.
We cut to a man and wife. The husband is leaving for work but wants a kiss. His wife won’t give him one because he’s already running late. He tricks her into giving him one. Then runs off to work. We cut then to the same man entering the subway control room, he’s a controller, and settling into his station. Someone comments that he’s acting like a stereotypical newlywed, which admittedly, he is. We then get a few minutes of blinking lights as the Guy In Charge barks orders and requests the status of the trains.
This is actually a really interesting set and may very well have been shot in the actual subway control room in Seoul. This is kind of cool as it gives us some idea of the scale of the Seoul subway system, and what it takes to “keep the trains running on time”.
K again walks around the subway station, this time though she’s actively tailing J. Why? It must have something to do with that blather before the credits sequence. But, why him? And why is a police detective moping around the subway station in the first place.
Now T shows up at the station with a gaggle of his henchmen. He boards a train. K also boards the train (none knows the other is there). One of the henchmen places a suitcase on the top rack inside the last car.
A little girl watches him do this.
The train speeds off. T and his henchmen storm (and by storm I mean walk to) the lead car and shoot the driver. T takes the radio and contacts the control room. He explains that he has a ton of explosives stashed on the train and that the controllers better get the Prime Minister to a specific platform ASAP or he’s going to detonate the explosives.
The controllers call the Police Captain who calls J.
J gets the call and runs off to catch the train at the next station. This one sequence actually works up some interesting tension, as J takes every possible shortcut between stops. J actually doesn’t reach the train before it takes off, but manages to get atop if as it passes beneath him (he’s on a catwalk). J smashes the back window and climbs inside.
Meanwhile, in the commotion as T passed K in the train K managed to steal T’s wallet (back to the idea that she’s a pickpocket). She sees J and they have another of those weird conversations without eye contact. At this time I was actually struggling to stay awake so I can’t remember what was said.
T realizes that his wallet is missing and assumes someone on the train has it. He tells them that unless his wallet is returned in 30 seconds he’ll blow up one of the train cars. K runs off towards the lead car. J starts looking for the case full of explosives as the passengers panic. The little girl points out the case on the rack. We cut to K reaching the lead car door, then T’s watch hitting zero, then the last train car exploding.
Inside the main car is Wife from earlier in the review, who is riding the subway.
Did they die? What happened? It actually seems like they edited out the coherence here. I am not sure how anyone got to safety. What did J do with the case? None of this is revealed, so we are left to guess.
One of the most important things to remember in shooting and editing an action sequence is filling in all the little details, usually with quick cuts, and though Tube has lots of quick cuts it has almost NONE of the details so virtually every sequence simply ads to the confusion.
It appears that everyone has survived.
Cut to the Prime Minister arriving at the platform with a cadre of unarmed guards. One of the guards complains that he’d feel better if they were at a different station because there are lots of innocent bystanders at this one. The Prime Minister then strips all of the officer’s badges and exclaims that cowardice won’t be tolerated. The guard then says he’d feel better if they had guns full of blanks.
None of this makes even a lick of sense, but that’s okay because we never see the guard again.
Now, in the midst of all of this we keep cutting to the control room where the controllers come across increasingly complex problems to solve. All of them revolving around rerouting train traffic to avoid smashing into the train under T’s control. These are the most intense scenes in the film because, for the moment, we have some idea what the hell is going on. And I admit it was fun to watch the two dots representing trains approaching one another on the bug display.
The Police Captain arrives at the control room.
We cut back to the train where K finally gets into the first car where T is waiting. She hands him his wallet, then slaps him. He punches her across the cheek and she goes down. Meanwhile one of the other passengers is stealthily filming the events in the car. T spots him and insists that he film the entire thing.
Don’t worry, it never ever comes up again.
With the train careening out of control the controllers come up with a plan. T made it clear that if they stop the train at any time he’s going to detonate the ton of explosives but they are willing to risk it because the track is far enough underground that his signal shouldn’t get out to the detonator (or something… there is so little dialogue in this movie I had to guess for most of plot nuances).
In a quiet section of track they move a whole mess of SWAT dudes into position. There is also a lot of chatter about 20,000 volts. What does it have to do with anything? I have absolutely no idea. J is told to keep everyone on the train, thus as soon as the train stops, everyone with two legs leaps off and starts running down the tunnel.
Mass chaos ensues as virtually all of the SWAT guys and all the henchmen. J leaps from the train and runs towards the front car. He gets in front of the train in time for T to see him and (somehow) start the train rumbling forward. As we established earlier, the train is high enough off the ground that J can drop beneath it, which he does, and grabs onto the undercarriage. T, so incensed that his plan is failing, blows up the station where his ton of explosive is hidden.
Now I ask, just how much explosive did he and his men have to hide to make a ton? A ton is 2000 pounds, and it’s not the sort of thing you can just leave in a duffel bag. They’d need to have a truck and several sturdy men (not to mention a dolly) to get a ton of anything into a train station. So, yes, I am saying that it’s implausible.
The station explodes in a ball of very well rendered CGI fire.
The folks in the control room are unmoved by the explosion and assumed loss of life. We don’t actually know if anyone was in the station because no one ever mentions casualties.
T calls the controller, and the Prime Minister who is now in the controller station. He says that the attack is in retaliation for being part of a shadow group of government “employees” that the Prime Minister has double-crossed.
Then, taking an interesting idea and making it really stupid, one of the subway controllers says “Hey, I know all about those super secret guys…” and proceeds to give a ream of expository dialogue about how their families were all killed.
So much for super secret I guess.
This so incenses the Prime Minister that he insists that the train be stopped and stormed. Didn’t he see that they just tried this and it failed, and now, aside from a careening train, a whole mess of people are wandering around in the dangerous subway tunnels?
Okay, J climbs along the undercarriage of the train to the first compartment and peeks up through a maintenance hatch. He’s spotted by K and one of the other passengers. T figures something’s up and pokes his head down but doesn’t see anything.
T calls the control room again and explains that the Prime Minister had the families of all his super-secret agents killed for leverage (or something… it didn’t make a whole lot of sense) and this is T’s revenge.
Meanwhile we also learn that T also has a dead wife and that J is the one who killed her. See, he was going to shoot T but instead shot his wife. Why? I have no idea and neither will you. To retaliate, T cut off J’s pinky finger. Why he didn’t just kill him as a question for the ages. Also, at one point in the movie T shoots J in the chest but he lives because a playing card stops a bullet. Yes, a playing card.
Anyway where the hell was I?
Oh, right, T can’t find J because J has already scrambled back to the preceding car.
The train is sped up to avoid smashing into another oncoming train and rerouted to a maintenance track. The problem is, this track goes over a bridge that’s under repair and can’t handle the speed and weight of a fully loaded train. J has to decouple the last seven cars, which he does with the help of Gum Chewing Guy.
The train sails over the bridge safely. Gristle McThornbody and I were both pretty sure there was going to be a jump a-la Speed jammed in here. Amazingly the movie proved us wrong.
J storms into the main car and flicks open a telescoping baton (where he got that no one knows) and attacks T (Who whips out a short sword that was strapped to his back). They fight and T is thrown out of the train to his apparent death. We never see what happens to him, but I it’s a safe bet that he’s dead.
Now there is another problem. The detonator that T installed in the main car is stuck at 24 seconds and any drop in power will trigger the backup system and blow up the remaining two cars. Adding to the tension, is that if the train isn’t switched to a dead end track (and damn soon) the resulting explosion will damage or destroy a nearby nuclear power plant.
Sheesh… throw that in at the last moment! Worse, throw it in at the last minute then throw it away!
They successfully switch to the maintenance track but the last few people trapped (who were in the main car) had no way to get off unless someone decouples the second car and STAYS on the main car to hold the capacitor serving the detonator open (it has a big handle on it).
J volunteers, naturally, and K tries to talk him out of it. She loves him, she says. He puts a cigarette in his mouth (again) and we get a flashback. His wife and he are sitting atop their jeep and she is complaining about his smoking. He brushes her off. She makes him promise to smoke only when she is there to light it for him.
See, it WAS symbolic, I’m never wrong about these things.
Anyway, back on the train. K explains that she’s traveled the Earth specifically to meet J and that he can’t leave her now. That she can see inside his heart. J is noticeable moved (I say noticeable because he tells us. J can’t seem to show any emotion). He says that he loves her too.
Why? She stole his bag, broke into his apartment and messed with his stuff, got him into the mess on the train… Women… Sheesh.
Okay, J decouples the train cars and he and K stand facing each other, holding hands, until the distance between the cars is so great that they can’t hold on any longer. The lead car screams off down the maintenance tunnel and explodes, the second car stops and everyone else escapes.
Cut to the surface where K and the others emerge to a barrage of press. Wife and Husband reunite, and K laments the loss of J.
Now, if you’ve read this far you may be thinking, “but Big, this sounds like a really fun action movie!” And I say, I had to write the plot in this review much more coherently than it occurs in the film or you’d never have read this far. There are so many quick flashbacks, unnecessary plot points, mini stories, and confusing back information here to fill a review twice as long. But, life is short and obligations are infinite so you get ten pages rather than thirty.
The visual in Tube do work though and I’d put the Korean set and stunt design team here up against ANYONE in Hollywood. But stunts alone do not a good movie make unless you are Jackie Chan and willing to immolate yourself for a laugh. The weight of the script, the haphazard way the dialogue sputtered out of the characters, when they DID actually talk which wasn’t often, was flat and lifeless. The acting from the lead, J, was awful. Capping the awfulness Tube offered a host of clichés that should be removed from virtually every action movie produced from today into the far, far future. Let’s make a list:
1. Brooding cop
2. Brooding cop with dead wife
3. Brooding cop with dead wife who flaunts the “justice” system
4. Knows the villain because he once tried to kill him
5. Villain who was once a good guy but got screwed
6. The woman who knows the only way to the hero’s heart
7. The Police Captain
Not only the clichés but whole segments of this movie were torn, lock stock and barrel from other actions films.
1. Train: Runaway Train AND Under Siege 2
2. Villains: Under Siege
3. Fight on the subway between J and T: Predator 2
4. Villains don’t know the hero is right near them for most of the movie: Die Hard
5. Police Captain speech: Dirty Harry (all of them)
6. Hanging on the back of the train as it careens through the tunnels: Mission Impossible 2
I could go on and on and on and on. What someone needs to do is spend the time crafting a script BEFORE hiring the cast and shooting. With just a little more front end work Tube could have been a pleasant afternoon or late night diversion, if not a worthy entry in the action movie pantheon, but without a coherent narrative it’s here, in the Hall of Shame.
It’s a pity because Tube had a lot going for it.
I don’t speak any Korean other than to say “Thank you very much” (kansamni-dat) so figuring out who the hell is who in this movie is virtually impossible, the IMDB lists five actors total as starring in the film. Take my word, there were a hell of a lot more.