'The Suspect' is overblown, derivative - and dazzling
The South Korean spy thriller invasion heats up this week with The Suspect, the second entry in the genre to open here in as many months.
Directed by Won Shin-yeon (A Bloody Aria, Seven Days) in a frenetic style that borders on the schizoid, The Suspect is a breathless, slam-bang action thriller about a North Korean defector welcomed by the South with open arms - then framed for murder.
Last month's entry, Commitment, was a schmaltzy mix of romance and intrigue about beautiful twentysomethings, kids who played at being spies.
The Suspect is a whole other animal: It's grown-up, deadly serious, and free of the ham-handed romantic subplots that mire so many films from the region in ick stew. Boasting wondrous production values, great location shoots, amazing car chases, and dazzling fights, it's also highly derivative. A mutt of a mix between the Bourne series and Park Chan-wook's bloody, violent 2002 masterpiece Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Won's actioner is a mean, though most definitely not lean, 137-minute chase-'n'-fight sequence.
Yoo Gong stars as Ji Dong-cheol, a former North Korean special forces super-soldier and -spy who defected to South Korea after his superiors labeled him a traitor, slaughtered his family, and condemned him to death. We're given Dong-cheol's backstory in sizzling flashbacks, including a stunning torture sequence. Subjected to electric shock, beatings, and extreme heat, the hapless spy is taken to the gallows and hanged - and yet even with a noose around his neck, dangling above an abyss, he manages to free himself.
Once in Seoul, he's helped by the CEO of one of the country's largest conglomerates: The old man came from the same tiny village.
Things go bad fast when masked men break in and kill the millionaire and frame Dong-cheol. For two hours, we see the preternaturally gifted fighter, runner, driver, and marksman evade every cop and soldier sent after him by South Korea's top spycatcher, the dashing and incorruptible Col. Min Se-hoon (Park Hee-soon).
The two men have history. They once went against each other in an operation in Hong Kong - which adds poignancy to the chess game they play.
Diehard action fans (Die Hard fans included) will lap up The Suspect in all its ungainly, fat, overblown 137-minute glory.
Others may have a different trip.
The action is so relentless that at a certain point past the 90-minute mark, you will either pass out, walk out, or, if you're lucky, be so thoroughly beaten into submission that you'll forget just how much a Bourne clone you're watching and enjoy the ride.
The Suspect **1/2 (out of four stars)
Directed by Won Shin-yeon. With Yoo Gong, Park Hee-soon, Jo Seong-ha, Yoo Da-in. Distributed by Well Go USA. In Korean with English subtitles.
Running time: 2 hours, 17 mins.
Parent's guide: not rated (violence, profanity, intense fighting and action scenes, smoking)
Playing at: AMC Plymouth Meeting Mall 12