Busan 2020 Review: DELIVER US FROM EVIL, A Slick and Undemanding Action-Thriller Romp
It's hard being an assassin, especially when you take your work home with you. Even more so when that work turns out to be the psycho brother of your last target, who's chased you to a foreign country where you're trying to retrieve your ex-lover's kidnapped daughter. This concept, which combines elements of Leon, Taken and Korea's The Man from Nowhere, itself a mashup of those earlier Hollywood films, is about all the plot you need to known about the slick Korean action-thriller Deliver Us from Evil. If that's not much to go on, tough, cause that's really all there is to it.
That may sound a little negative, and if I was only going to discuss the narrative merits of this sophomore film from Hong Won-chan - director of the twisty workplace thriller Office, a Cannes midnight selection in 2015 - then it would be. Thankfully, the script doesn't rank as one of the most interesting aspects of this pairing of Korean stars Hwang Jung-min and Lee Jung-jae, previously seen together in gangland opus New World - it's certainly the least important.
Seen by well over four million viewers during late summer, Deliver Us from Evil beat the odds by surpassing Peninsula at the box office (the expected summer champ) and turning into a big-budget hit in the midst of a pandemic that has decimated theatrical attendance around the world. Marquee stars, a slick trailer and pan-Asian location shooting (Thailand and Japan, as well as Korea) helped the film open big, but what kept it in cinemas was its explosive cocktail of high-octane action and hard-boiled genre elements. With a dead simple premise and no pesky social commentary to deal with, Hong's latest film is the big, dumb Jerry Bruckheimer summer blockbuster version of the Korean revenge thriller. That said, even viewed as an undemanding piece of summer entertainment, the film does suffers from some frustrating elements.
Hwang Jung-min and Lee Jung-jae have essentially swapped roles seven years after New World, with Hwang now playing the rigid, amoral lead and Lee taking on the role of the crazy and charismatic gangster. Hwang is known for plucky and gregarious characters, which the stoic hitman In-nam most certainly is not. After years of playing romantic leads or stern action heroes, Lee refashioned himself as a more flamboyant character actor and he clearly relishes playing the knife-wielding, catwalk-ready Ray here, strutting around in Gucci sunglasses and white trench coats. Yet there's a disconnect between the performances, one dry and serious, the other outrageously over-the-top, which highlights one of the main problems of the film - it can never fully reconcile its desire to be a tense, ice-cold thriller with its action blockbuster credentials.
This problem grows throughout the film, as the set pieces become increasingly silly and physics-defying. The opening Japan-set scene (possibly the best in the film) is a coolly executed masterclass in tension and mood-building, hinting at In-nam's vicious prowess as he dispatches a house of gangsters from the shadows, until he appears behind Ray's brother. Contrast that with the In-nam who, 100 minutes later, can throw himself through the windshield of a speeding van in Bangkok and immediately return fire. This, of course, immediately after having suffered a series of grave injuries.
Despite the fact that they sometimes appear to be acting in different films, both Hwang and Lee are convincing in their roles, but it's hard to say the same for Park Jung-min, who is cast here as Yoo-yi, a Korean transsexual working in a Bangkok red light district who starts helping In-nam. It's a spirited, committed performance from Park, but the way the character is written and interacted with by others leaves much to be desired.
Where Deliver Us from Evil does excel is its sterling production values, particularly the lucid location photography by Hong Kyung-pyo and a thunderous score by Mowg, both of whom previously worked together on Lee Chang-dong's masterful Burning. Hong, also known for his work with Bong Joon-ho (Parasite), skilfully uses natural lighting to the film's advantage throughout, giving the segments in the three different countries their own distinct moods and tones. The camera also moves differently, shifting from fixed shots in the calmer Japan-set scenes to increasingly more fluid handheld camerawork in the alleys of Bangkok. As for Mowg, he effortlessly heightens the cool factor with bass-heavy tracks and keeps the action alive with throbbing beats.
The first half of the film is largely spent building up the eventual city-wide clash that takes place between In-nam and Ray, who fight several times, first squaring off in close quarters and later decimating entire city blocks with sprays of assault rifle fire and liberally tossed grenades. Part of these sequences work very well, but they're occasionally undermined by an overreliance on certain techniques, such as the juddery editing and sound effects that turn landed punches into wrecking balls - possibly a way to make up for occasionally soft choreography in the long-take fights.
Deliver Us from Evil misses a few of its beats, such as some emotional stakes it tries to inject too late in the game, but on the whole it's a straightforward, brain-off action romp with cool visuals, and taken for what it is, its array of violent interludes and macho postering will be a pleasing one for the right audience.
Deliver Us from Evil
- Won-Chan Hong
- Won-Chan Hong
- Jung-min Hwang
- Jung-jae Lee
- Jung-min Park
- Moon Choi