Touted as "Korean cinema's answer to Quentin Tarantino," writer/director/star Ryoo Seung-Wan has, with his seventh film, produced a kung fu crime drama called The City of Violence. It's a familiar story of cops and robbers, close friends and sworn enemies. As I said, not exactly groundbreaking. The only question is if the execution can make something fresh and new out of the tried and true, as Tarantino does with such finesse. So is it an apt comparison?
Former gangster Wangjae (Ahn Kil-Kang) has been murdered in the alleys behind the bar he owns, a victim of random violence. The friends he used to pal around with back in high school come for the funeral; Seoul cop Taesoo (Jung Doo-Hong), buisnessman Pilho (Lee Beom-Su), and brothers Sukhwan (director Seung-Wan) and Donghwan (Jeong Seok-Yong). Taesoo is convinced that something's not as it seems and decides to investigate. Meanwhile, Sukhwan merely wants revenge, Pilho just wants to move on from the tragedy, and Donghwan is trying to keep from being torn apart by survivor's guilt and perhaps something else. In trying to discover the truth about Wangjae, secrets are brought to light, unseen betrayals loom, and many kicks to the face ensue.
As far as these martial arts flicks go, this is a perfectly serviceable entry - nothing more, nothing less. The plot is what it is. The acting is good enough, certainly not anything that transcends the material but nothing is embarassing or amateurish either; Doo-Hong has a slow-burn charisma about him and some serious fighting skills (he also served as fight choreographer) while Beom-Su has got a few sleazy-yet-slick surprises up his sleeve. Director Seung-Wan, while not truly worthy of Tarantino comparisons based on what's seen here, has got an energetic way with the camera and a good eye for shooting action - particularly in his use of overhead shots during balls-out scenes of mayhem. He appears to have taken a few lessons from Western cinema such as an appreciation of split-screen shots a la DePalma, and there are a few obvious references to movies from both sides of the ocean (an early gang brawl that feels like a cheesy 70's kung fu flick as well as a climax reminiscent of many, many drawn out battles, up to and including Kill Bill's House of Blue Leaves sequence).
Again, the martial arts scenes are plentiful and varied in tone - some are close to being playful while others are deadly serious. One fight has our heroes descended upon by a number of gangs at once, all of whom wear matching outfits and have seemingly stepped whole and breathing from The Warriors (if you're curious, yes, there's a gang dressed in baseball uniforms wielding bats) and is highly entertaining. Pretty much all the kung fu kickassery works here; I reiterate that I wasn't joking when I referred to the sheer volume of foot-meets-face instances. What the typical John Woo bullet ballet is to ammo expended, so is The City of Violence to the number of kicks delivered - there are easily hundreds of legs flying around here.
The Weinstein Company continues to release good-to-awesome quality chopsocky flicks under their Dragon Dynasty home video banner and I couldn't be happier. The DVD's got the original Korean language track in Dolby 5.1 as well as an English dub (purists can leave that one to the dirty blasphemers), as well as English and Spanish subtitles. There's also a running commentary by Seung-Wan, helpfully subtitled. A blooper reel, the original Korean trailer, and the US DVD trailer complete the set.
To sum up: some decent characters, a dab of melodrama, and a whole lot of whirling dervish style whupass. If that sounds like your bag, you'll have a pretty good time with The City of Violence.