Director: Lee Jeong-beom
Writer: Lee Jeong-beom
Producer: Kim Seong-Woo, Baek Hyeon-Ik
Cast: Jang Dong-Gun, Kim Min-Hee, Kim Hee-Won, Kim Jun-Sung, Go Woo-Lim, Ju Young-Ho, Jang In-Seop, Lee Seung-Chan, Park Sang-Hun, Brian Tee
Running Time: 116 min.
By Paul Bramhaull
Director and writer Lee Jeong-beom quickly came to the attention of action movie aficionado’s in 2010 with the release of The Man from Nowhere. A Korean movie starring Won Bin as a mopish pawn shop attendant with a tragic and violent past, brought back to life by the kidnapping of a child, it delivered some surprisingly well put together action sequences, which included a particularly well staged knife fight. Although it wasn’t a movie without its flaws, particularly in the bad guys being very one dimensional, it was enough for many people to start asking what was next for Jeong-beom.
Three years later, and that question is answered by No Tears for the Dead. Replacing Won Bin as the lead is veteran actor Jang Dong-gun. Dong-gun is arguably one of the most recognizable faces in Korean cinema, having starred in various movies that have gained popularity on an international level – from Nowhere to Hide to Friend to Taegukgi, a movie in which he and Won Bin play brothers. Here he plays an assassin who’s been raised in the U.S., however on his most recent hit he accidentally kills a little girl, which throws him into a state of alcohol fuelled depression.
It turns out that’s only the beginning of his problems though. His hit was actually the girl’s father, who was believed to have a USB containing a set of codes to various bank accounts being used to store Triad money. When it comes to light that the father doesn’t have the USB, Dong-gun is told to get on a plane to Korea and kill the mother as well. Unsurprisingly, due to the issues Dong-gun had himself as a child with his own mother, he finds himself unable to go through with it, and we all know that when this happens in a movie, it’s going to lead to some serious trouble.
While the plot differs considerably from that of The Man from Nowhere, there are a number of familiar factors in No Tears for the Dead that anyone who’s seen the former will immediately recognize. Once again it’s a little girl that’s used to trigger the crux of the plot, again we have an English speaking assassin from South East Asia who has a kind of unspoken bromance going on with the main character, and there’s even an almost identical scene in which Dong-gun holds his phone up to an exploding building. Jeong-beom clearly loved these elements enough from The Man from Nowhere that he felt comfortable to use them again here, and thankfully they all work.
There are elements of No Tears for the Dead which definitely don’t work though. The grieving mother is effectively played by Kim Min-hee, having lost both her husband and daughter at the same time, her character immerses herself in her job and by looking after her hospitalized mother. The problem is though elements like her sick mother never have any meaning attached to them, making it difficult for the audience to attach any connection to the scenes they share together. By the end of the movie, she still has a sick mother, and that’s it. If the intention behind the mother’s character was to reveal that Min-hee still has a softer side, after revealing her rather cold hearted nature in the office, then they miss the mark.
Speaking of sharing scenes, another issue that arises is that Min-hee and Dong-gun, despite playing the two central characters which all the events hinge upon, don’t have a single face to face conversation. While this could easily be argued as being an important detail in the events which unfold, as the fact that Min-hee has never had a good look at Dong-gun plays a vital part in the finale, it sadly doesn’t help to create any kind of connection between them during the rest of the movie. Whereas in The Man from Nowhere the audience is clearly invested in the relationship between Won Bin and the kidnapped girl, No Tears for the Dead misses out on that connection, and you never truly care that much about Dong-gun being able to save Min-hee from being killed.
This could have worked if Jeong-beom is able to clearly telegraph exactly why Dong-gun decides to not kill Min-hee and become her protector, but again his reasons are conveyed in quite a muddled way. Thanks to a flashback scene to his childhood we know that the mother of Dong-gun’s character didn’t care about him, and tried to dump him in the dessert, revealing what was a loveless upbringing. However the connectivity isn’t made as to how this links back to the decisions he’s making in the present day with Min-hee, we’re just left to presume he’s a tortured soul who decides not to kill her because, well, maybe she’s the good mother than his wasn’t? It’s all guess work.
Still, all of these convoluted plot niggles could of course likely be forgiven if the action delivers. Thankfully, it does. While not overflowing with action, what’s there is a joy to watch. Jeong-beom crafts together 3 impressive set pieces, from the first brief assassination attempt in a bar, which has Dong-gun taking aim while the barrel of the gun is lodged in someone’s mouth, to an awesome 10 minute shoot out mid-way through which plays out like a mix of The Man from Nowhere meets Heat. This set piece is actually the highlight of the movie, as a gun fight erupts between two adjacent apartment buildings, it delivers knife fighting, bullets, grenades, and several liters of fake blood.
Full credit has to be given to Jeong-beom for what appears to be the use of no CGI whatsoever. If it’s there, you won’t notice. Instead we have a ferocious knife fight against 3 assailants which is remarkably brutal with blood spraying onto the walls, across the floor, and even over the camera lens. It’s the type of scene which makes you wish CGI blood had never been invented. Similarly the finale sees Dong-gun in a locked down office building, which has him running around like a cross between John McClane and Casey Ryback, as he takes on his former employees and looks to protect Min-hee at the same time.
If anything, No Tears for the Dead is worth a watch purely for the action. It may be sporadic, but it’s worth the wait when it comes around. While the movie itself is hardly happy viewing – both Dong-gun as the murderer of the husband and child of the woman he’s trying to protect, and Min-hee as the grieving widow and mother trying to stay alive – are characters residing in some very dark places. But it’s not a movie which shies away from the darkness, it’s just one which could perhaps have put a little more focus on connecting the dots contained within it.
Paul Bramhaull’s Rating: 7.5/10