Let’s say you have the films Taken and Leon: The Professional before you, and somehow you are able to get them to mate. Once their child is born, amputate all of the bad exposition it inherited from Taken, and all of the weird sexual tension it got from Leon. Raise the kid in Korea, where it will constantly be in the shadow of its older brothers Oldboy and I Saw The Devil. Those older brothers will beat the crap out of it from time to time, but don’t do anything about those beatings, because then the kid will grow up mean … real mean. Congratulations, you’ve just produced the immensely entertaining 2010 film The Man From Nowhere.
The film opens with a botched drug deal, which might confuse you since you’ll expect any one of a half-dozen characters during the sequence to be the movie’s protagonist. Nope. Turns out the most important character in the deal is the daughter of one of them, So-mi (Kim Sae-ron). So-mi tries to be friends with the pawnshop owner next door (Bin Won), but he won’t have it. The drug dealers who were wronged during the opening sequence then fall upon So-mi and her mother, believing that they know where the missing product is. That turns out to be a gigantic mistake, because the pawnshop owner has a secret past which makes him absolutely the last guy in South Korea you want to mess with.*
The Man From Nowhere was advertised in the U.S. as a revenge thriller, to capitalize on the DVD and arthouse success of the aforementioned Korean films Oldboy and I Saw The Devil. However, this is not the same movie as those films. Much like Taken, this is a film which uses the concept of revenge to set up an action movie. And not one of those super-slick Matrix-y action movies either, but a down-and-dirty film in which the majority of the money seems to have gone into teaching the lead how to punch stuntmen in the throat.
See, I’ll make a lot of jokes about Taken‘s painfully bad writing, but the fact is, I loved that picture. Its marketing promised me X, and it delivered a well-shot, well-choreographed X that contained a legitimately great performance from Liam Neeson. Similarly, as soon as you see the little girl being nice with Bin Won, you have a pretty good idea of where the movie is going, and then it goes there in spectacular style.
If you liked Taken, you’ll love this movie, because it’s better in almost every way. It has a more complicated plot, and it trusts the audience to be smart enough to follow it, instead of using clumsy exposition to drag us along. Its plot is more well-tuned; Taken basically pivots off of some very lucky plays that Neeson’s character is able to pull off. It’s better-shot; director Lee Jeong-beom is one to watch, his visual style finding a nice middle ground between an extra-flashy movie like Oldboy and Hollywood’s visually dull, uber-market-tested thrillers.
I especially want to single out the fight choreography in this film, because it’s superb. The bar in that area is very high right now, where even a low-budget yawner like Ultraviolet can find a team of black belts to deliver a great fight scene, but this movie leaps over it by a mile. As you might expect from a movie like this, there has to be an “end boss” (played by Thai actor Thanayong Wongtrakul), and the scenes in which his fights Bin Won are absolutely crackerjack. The film is very gory, but I liked that, because I’ve always been disgusted with Hollywood’s desperation to produce PG-13 movies about horrific vengeance. The goriness of a movie like The Man From Nowhere is, at the very least, more intellectually honest.
My lone complaint about The Man From Nowhere is that it does lay on the cheese a bit too thick at times. High melodrama is a key element of action films throughout Asia, from Bruce Lee to Tony Jaa and everybody in between, which I’m used to and have a lot of respect for. However, sometimes it goes so far that it gets on your nerves, and there are a couple of scenes in this picture which reach this level. I’m thinking of one scene near the end especially; I don’t want to spoil anything, but it’s a fake-out which will fake out approximately nobody, and is there clearly just for an increase of melodrama. The film had been so good up to that point with balancing its emotion and its action, it was a shame to see the ball get dropped in the last second.
Still, that scene doesn’t waste the goodwill that this film built up with me. The renaissance in South Korean cinema has been built on a certain type of film, one that Hollywood is afraid to make because it would be rated R and thus can’t fill theaters with teenagers. These are gritty, brutal thrillers that imagine worlds where virtually nobody can get through life untouched by dishonesty or violence. America seems to be turning away from movies that explore humanity’s dark side, but Korea is embracing them. I don’t think The Man From Nowhere goes to that place quite as effectively as, say, Mother, but if I had to give a perfect example of how a movie can go there, this one would be it.
Reviewed by Mark Young
*I assume that the last guy in all of Korea that you want to mess with is Kim Jong-il.