Cha Tae-shik is not big on social interaction. A reclusive pawn shop owner whose dour demeanour and unkempt hair paints a familiar picture of disenchanted Asian youth, his only friend is So-mi, the young daughter heroin addict Hyo-jeong. Despite Hyo-jeong's concerns over the young man's true intentions the friendship is genuine, one based on Tae-shik's concern for So-mi's well-being and her need to escape her unhappy home life. Things take a turn for the considerably worse when Hyo-jeong steals a drug consignment belonging to a gang run by ruthless brothers Man-sik and Jong-sik, who quickly track her down and torture her into revealing the location of their goods. Unfortunately for Tae-shik, they're in a camera bag that Hyo-jeong has left in his care.
By this point the way forward may seem clearly marked, the familiar tale of an innocent drawn into a dangerous situation that is outside of his experience and who is forced to rely on his wits to survive. Which is exactly what happens, but with one significant caveat that we first become aware of when Tae-shik walks in on two of gang's goons who have broken into into his shop to search for the bag. On being threatened with a knife, he meekly offers his wallet, but a couple of seconds later has whipped the knife from its owner's hand at a speed that you'll likely need a slow-motion re-run to see. The second goon – a burly bruiser it earlier took four cops to take down – steps forward to sort Tae-shik out, but seconds later he's lying out cold on the floor. But the gang have So-mi and use her to ensure Tae-shik's obedience, and they recover the drugs and send Tae-shik to deliver them to criminal kingpin Mr. Oh, in the process setting them both up to be nabbed in a police raid. Back at police headquarters Tae-shik isn't talking, and when the arresting detectives look into his background they discover that all information on him is security locked. Just who is this quiet and previously unassuming pawn shop owner?
The Man From Nowhere [Ajeossi] is a prime example of how the South Korean film industry seems able to invigorate material that Hollywood has rendered stale. Like its American equivalent, the film is partly a patchwork of recycled material – there's plenty that will be familiar to anyone versed in modern crime thriller cinema – but it's handled here with real energy and style, and while it may occasionally stretch credibility, it still boasts its share of well timed surprises and always walks on the safe side of excess. Thus when Tae-shik's meeting with Mr. Oh is exposed as a set-up and the gang turn on him, his formidable skills only carry him so far – this is not a martial arts movie but an action thriller, and if one man, however tough, is pitted against six angry gangsters, he's going to take a beating.
But the pleasure that comes from watching a lone fighter take down a string of cocksure fools who unaware of his skills is still there to be savoured, though is initially employed as an effective tease, with sophomore director Lee Jeong-beom showing the results of Tae-shik's actions rather than the combat itself. There's an economy to this approach reminiscent of the before-and-after editing style of Kitano Takeshi, most effectively employed when, after remaining silent and expressionless under police interrogation, Tae-shik concocts a reason for his handcuffs to be momentarily removed and the next thing we know he has fled the scene leaving a string of injured policemen in his wake. His first on-screen brawl against ill-prepared opponents is thrillingly staged, while his mid-film set-piece fight in a night-club toilet with ice cool Thai hit-man Ramrowan sees the pair's equally matched speed and agility tempered by the scrappiness of a real close-quarters fight-to-the-death brawl. The inevitable climactic battle in which Tae-shik takes on the gang and has a one-to-one with Ramrowan is a brutal show-stopper involving guns, fists, feet and knives, and is as vicious and bloody a film fight as you'll see all year.
The Man From Nowhere dances with cliché but barrels on forward as if blissfully unaware that it's doing so. You can check them off as you watch: there's a moody, good looking, athletic and kind-hearted hero who continues to be haunted by the death of his wife; there's a kidnapped damsel for our boy to rescue (that she's practically an infant is beside the point); there's a ruthless and everso slightly bonkers villain; there's a teeth-gritting, anaesthetic-free bullet removal scene; there's a last act twist that for many will feel like a cheat (but which actually makes a degree of sense when you re-watch the film); and there's a bad guy whose combat skills equal that of the hero and are set to offer him his biggest challenge. Tae-shik even crops his hair before engaging in final battle to transform his dowdy appearance into that of the well groomed model of a Korean action hero. It should make you groan, and just occasionally it does, but there's more than enough energy and invention elsewhere to make a few allowances for such pandering to convention.
The performances are well judged – leading man Won Bin recently impressed as the damaged Yoon Do-joon in Bong Joon-ho's excellent Mother – and the technical handling is consistently slick without ever feeling superficial, with Lee Tae-yoon's scope cinematography, Kim Sang-beom's editing and director Lee Jeong-beom's timing and eye for camera placement (he really likes his top-shots) deserving special mention here. A big box-office hit and multi-award winner on home turf, the film is also, in that endearing Korean crime thriller tradition, prepared to walk on the dark side, particularly in the handling of Hyo-jeong's story and in a sinister sub-plot involving the kidnapping of young children for use as drug couriers and organ harvesting. The lighter moments are rare, but there's an enjoyably playful cheek in the suggestion that Korean detectives are able to gain access to secret military intelligence files by emailing a death threat to Barack Obama. Do not, I would suggest, try this at home.
A generally impressive 2.35:1 PAL anamorphic transfer that boasts excellent detail (for a DVD transfer, at least), vivid colours and punchy contrast. Black levels are strong, but do tend to suck in some of the surrounding detail, something that's really noticeable in darker or backlit scenes. How much of this is down to a deliberate attempt to create a post-modern noir look is hard to say – certainly the flashback scenes, which have had their luma levels pushed above normal to visually separate them from the main narrative, display no such detail loss.
You can choose between Dolby stereo 2.0 or 5.1 surround, both in the original Korean, and perfectly serviceable though the stereo track is, the 5.1 is the only way to go. The expected broad range and crisp clarity are boosted by a sometimes lively use of the full sound stage, with louder sound effects – crashes, gunshots, etc. – and Shim Hyun-jeong's score being gorgeously rendered. The LFE bass really kicks when required and ambient sound is far more inclusive on the surround track.
Not even a trailer. Weak.
A smartly made, engagingly performed and consistently enjoyable action thriller that, while not breaking new ground or pushing any boundaries, does what it sets out to do with dramatic and cinematic aplomb. eOne's DVD scores highly on the presentation of the main feature, but disappoints in its lack of extras. For the film itself, though, it still comes recommended.