Lee Byung-hun

Ashfall (2019, Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun)

I don’t know how long it would’ve taken me to see Ashfall if it hadn’t been for a blogathon. Maybe never. While I’m a Ma Dong-seok fan because how can you not be, I’ve always been lukewarm on top-billed Lee Byung-hun. Lee’s not actually the lead; the lead is Ha Jung-woo, who I don’t follow. So, yeah… probably wouldn’t have seen Ashfall if I hadn’t specifically been looking for a disaster movie and also wanted to watch a (relatively) new South Korean movie.

So I’m glad I saw Ashfall, against the various odd. Writers and directors Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun don’t have many—or possibly any—original ideas in the film, which has a real-life volcano Baekdu Mountain erupting and threatening all life on the Korean Peninsula, North and South. Lee’s a North Korean double agent (or triple agent), it’s never clear. Possibly quadruple. Ma is a Korean-American scientist who finds himself drug into the government response because he’s the one who’s been trying to tell them the volcano is dangerous—I wonder if it’s the Korean equivalent of a Yellowstone “vulcanist”–for years. Ha is the Army bomb tech who’s got two days left on his compulsory military service. Ha’s a bit of an eccentric who can never remember his appointments with pregnant wife Suzy Bae, who doesn’t quite look sixteen years younger than Ha but definitely looks a little younger. They try to play it off with Ha being just immature but… he’s more like just unreliable. It’s unclear.

So the President (Choi Kwang-il very good in a small part) puts Jeon Hye-jin in charge of figuring out how to not go the way of Pompeii and she brings in Ma, who’s got a plan involving detonating nuclear warheads in a copper mine because Ma really likes Broken Arrow, but South Korea doesn’t have any nukes so they have to go steal some from North Korea even though they’re really friendly in this nearish, post-nuclear North Korea, but also pro-disarmament North Korea. Not important. What’s important is spy Lee knows where there are some nukes and they know where Lee’s at because he’s got a GPS tracker in him. The real Army is going in to extract him and go find some nukes, Ha’s team is there to get the nukes transferred into a special case to nuke the volcano.

It’s kind of a Lee and Ha buddy movie, also kind of not because they don’t have any common foes. Not really. The U.S. Army shows up to humiliate South Korea, which Lee finds really amusing, but they’re not really a plot impediment. They’re just something else the movie throws into the batter, albeit with a lot of overt subtexts. Robert Curtis Brown is actually find as the shitty American ambassador, which fooled me into thinking it wouldn’t be crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest but then, of course, it was crappy American acting in a South Korean movie for the rest. Michael Ray is profoundly bad as the general. Though Jai Day could be worse as the guy on the ground.

So most of it’s just Lee and Ha being awful to one another while getting through “Mission: Impossible: Bomb Disposal Unit” with some earthquake stuff thrown in. There’s some great CGI disaster shots in Ashfall but there’s also a lot of bad directing during the disaster scenes too. Kim and Lee are far more successful combining narrative tropes than they are executing mix and match action set pieces. The first one, Ha in a car chase type sequence during the first earthquake, shows they clearly don’t have it cracked and nothing else in the film is ever any better. You eventually just have to give it a pass on that type of action because at least the visuals are interesting. Ashfall’s an odyssey. Lots of different locations and settings. And it often looks great—Kim Ji-yong’s photography, whoever does the CGI; Ashfall’s a fine looking film.

Well, except when it looks like Kim’s got the “soap opera mode” turned on and the artifice shines bright, which happens more in the second half than the first. The first has the most successful visual sequences. The second half is when it needs to have the action sequences….

Unfortunately, the directors just aren’t very good at directing action scenes. It would help immensely.

The acting’s all fine or better. Ma and Jeon have the worst parts of the top-billed but still give the best performances. The material’s so weak. It’s a wonder what they do with it. Lee’s good enough I’m going to have to give him another chance, but he’s also a lot better than Ha, which isn’t what the movie needs.

It’s too long by twenty minutes, but Ashfall’s more than a good enough action-spy-disaster movie.

1/4

CREDITS

Written and directed by Kim Byung-seo and Lee Hae-jun; director of photography, Kim Ji-yong; music by Bang Joon-seok; production designer, Kim Byung-han; produced by Kang Myung-chan; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Lee Byung-hun (Lee Joon-Pyeong), Ha Jung-woo (Jo In-Chang), Jeon Hye-jin (Jeon Yoo-Kyung), Ma Dong-seok (Kang Bong-Rae), Suzy Bae (Choi Ji-Young), Michael Ray (General Michaels), Robert Curtis Brown (Ambassador Wilson), and Choi Kwang-il as the President.



G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009, Stephen Sommers)

It doesn’t surprise me there are people out there who like G.I. Joe. Not to be negative, but people are, by and large, not very intelligent. What surprises me is anyone who thought they were making a competent action picture. You’d think the success of Van Helsing would keep Sommers away from franchises or potential franchises, but Paramount’s apparently desperate.

I’m trying to think if there’s anything good about G.I. Joe. It does use a T.Rex song to some good effect, sadly it’s a remixed version. The original portions of the song are good. Marlon Wayans, though he’s vomiting out some horrendous dialogue, is all right. Christopher Eccleston gives the least bad bad performance.

As for the bad performances–Channing Tatum is awful. I hope he’s never in anything I see again. Joseph Gordon-Levitt’s presence is inexplicable and, as much as I love him, certainly doesn’t suggest he’s going to be making very many good movies in the future. Sienna Miller is bad but not awful–Rachel Nichols is much, much worse, for example.

The foreign actors–Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje and poor Saïd Taghmaoui–are terrible.

For a supposedly apolitical film, the French take a lot of hits. Mostly, it’s just Sommers regurgitating other films–Iron Man, Blackhawk Down, Star Wars–only with crappy CG again and poorly done action sequences.

The toy commercials had better action and better writing. Probably better acting too.

Wait, Arnold Vosloo is all right.

I didn’t even mention the music.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Sommers; screenplay by Stuart Beattie, David Elliot and Paul Lovett, based on a story by Michael Gordon, Beattie and Sommers; director of photography, Mitchell Amundsen; edited by Bob Ducsay and Jim May; music by Alan Silvestri; production designer, Ed Verreaux; produced by Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Ducsay and Sommers; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (Heavy Duty), Christopher Eccleston (McCullen), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (Rex), Byung-hun Lee (Storm Shadow), Sienna Miller (Ana), Rachel Nichols (Scarlett), Kevin J. O’Connor (Dr. Mindbender), Ray Park (Snake Eyes), Dennis Quaid (General Hawk), Saïd Taghmaoui (Breaker), Channing Tatum (Duke), Arnold Vosloo (Zartan), Marlon Wayans (Ripcord) and Jonathan Pryce as the President of the United States.


The Good, the Bad and the Weird (2008, Kim Ji-woon)

The Good, the Bad and the Weird, if the title is any hint, is an homage to Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns. Kim Ji-woon borrows liberally from all three of the Clint Eastwood films, taking a scene from one then, a little later, one from another. He takes it further than just a cheap reference–at one point, Song Kang-ho ends up in a deep sea diver helmet, which isn’t a reference (to my knowledge) but it fits rather well, stylistically.

What’s most striking about the film isn’t those references or homage. Instead, it’s the film’s place as a singular action movie. It’s set in Manchuria during Japanese aggression with a trio of expatriate Koreans living, albeit with more technologically, a life very similar to the characters in a Western. Even with the gun fights, the horses and the train robbery, the film isn’t actually a Western. It’s a war film, only it’s told from a Western point of view, which means there are long stretches without any reference to the spaghetti westerns it emulates in the first act.

These long stretches are instead action sequences. They’re magnificently choreographed–Song on a motorcycle being chase by one set of bad guys on horses and another set of bad guys on horses and the Japanese army and then another guy on horseback. It’s set across the Manchurian desert and with the humor and the skill, it feels more like Raiders of the Lost Ark or The Road Warrior. One of those films where large scale action scenes constantly surprised.

As a director, Kim doesn’t emulate, say, Leone’s style (until the end, which I’m sure I won’t forget). Instead, he has his own approach to the material and he’s fantastic. It’s a nice wide frame, filled with content and movement. At times, it’s hard to follow the film–there are so many different gangs of gunmen, it’s hard to keep them straight–but Kim’s direction is never confusing, even when he’s got an intricate moving shot (the first half of the film is full of them, for example, the camera moving between six people–one take–for reaction shots to what the first person sees). As a visual experience, the film’s a constant joy.

But then there’s the end. The end is when the film has to live up to its title–following that fabulous desert chase scene and a hilarious escape sequence, which kind of elevate the film to a higher plane. It can’t win. By falling into genre requirements–the wrong genre–The Good, the Bad and the Weird becomes an awkward, self-aware, pseudo-hip (the music never goes for Morricone, but the end’s got some hip hop, which really doesn’t work) fake spaghetti western. Instead of a singular war movie about countrymen–something the film has going for it almost until that point–it then collapses, even if the big reveal is hilarious.

As the titular weird, Song’s a delight. Good guy Jung Woo-sung barely has a character, but he plays well with Song so it doesn’t matter. Lee Byung-hun’s bad guy has almost as much style as Prince and watches American gangster movies. It shouldn’t work, but it does. It plays into the film’s lunacy, but Lee never lets the absurdity run rampant. He keeps it in check.

The film’s incredibly violent, which differentiates it as well. Westerns tend not to be anti-violent, but again… it isn’t really a Western. There are some really nice narrative tricks, ones requiring the viewer to be on his or her toes. It’d be hard, given all the action, for the film to be a passive viewing experience, but a couple of the sleights were extreme.

It’s a good movie, but it could have been so much better.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Kim Ji-woon; written by Kim Ji-woon and Kim Min-suk; directors of photography, Lee Mo-gae and Oh Seong-chul; edited by Nam Na-young; music by Dalparen and Chan Young-gyu; production designer, Cho Hwa-sung; produced by Choi Jai-won; released by CJ Entertainment.

Starring Song Kang-ho (Yoon Tae-goo), Lee Byung-hun (Park Chang-yi), Jung Woo-sung (Park Do-won), Ryu Seung-su (Man-gil), Zhang Qi (Deligeer), Yun Jae-mun (Byeong-chun), Son Byeong-ho (Seo Jae-shik), Song Yeong-chang (Kim Pan-ju), Kim Gwang-il (Two Blades), Ma Dong-suk (Bear), Ryu Chang-suk (Granny) and Lee Chung-ah (Song-yi).


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