Returning to the director’s seat for the second time, Hong Won-chan trades murder most foul within the blue collar arena for the underbelly of Asia and Southeast Asia in Deliver Us From Evil (다만 악에서 구하소서). In a film that’s equal parts thrilling and grotesque, Hong mixes the best aspects of films like The Man From Nowhere (2011), Furie (2019), and The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (2019) to create an original thriller which manages the necessary balance of well-crafted action, an emotional narrative, and engaging performances to keep you entertained from start to finish. More precisely, for fans of Asian cinema, the fact that actors Hwang Jung-min and Lee Jung-jae reunite for the first time since director Park Hoon-jung’s New World (2013) may be enough to entice you to snag this release from Well Go USA no questions asked. Having not seen New World, this reviewer can’t speak to whether the cast is enough of a draw to make Deliver Us From Evil an insta-purchase, but all of the film’s parts are intriguing enough in execution to warrant a viewing.
Former black ops agent In-nam (Hwang) earns his living doing what he knows (killing) but it’s taken a toll and he’s had enough. Believing his last job is complete, In-nam prepares for a life of peace and solitude until a call from his past has him traveling from Tokyo to Bangkok in search of a recently kidnapped little girl. What he doesn’t realize is that while he’s searching for the girl, someone is searching for him: an unrelenting killer with a profound grudge.
One of the major strengths for a film like Deliver Us is maintaining tension. The opening of the film kicks things off by introducing the audience to In-nam in the middle of a job in a manner reminiscent of Leon’s (Jean Reno) in 1994’s The Professional, establishing quickly that our protagonist is clever, patient, and deadly. Quite a few films manage to struggle continuing such a strong introduction, but Hong’s script and Hwang’s performance never relax enough for it to dip in any manner. Even the brief respites from violence are so integral to the story that you don’t quite relax in between so much as take slower breaths. Additionally, where other manhunter-type stories find various obstacles to slow down the “man with a certain set of skills,” In-nam is so good at what he does (navigating the murky waters underneath the glossy surface of everyday life) that he quickly finds the girl. This would be a spoiler, except it’s not the finding the girl that is the most tense, it’s the acquiring and saving due to the frequent interruptions from Lee’s Ray the Butcher. In-nam is presented as the type of character who cuts through people like a hot knife through butter, uninterested in the implications of the fallout from his actions except where it may impede his goals. This makes him deadly in his focus. This requires an opponent equal to the task of throwing him off his game, which is where Ray comes in. As presented, Ray is a force of nature, unfaltering, unfeeling, and equally destructive as In-nam, just less humane. Their continued tête-à-têtes amplify the tension as In-nam must navigate an unknown country in which he doesn’t speak the language, goes up against kidnappers not knowing how many there are, and multiple other factors, all while trying to avoid or defend against Ray. Wonderfully, Hong uses their interactions efficiently so that Ray appears more like a fly in the ointment, disrupting plans unexpectedly, adding wonderful chaos to the more straight-laced thriller.
What’s particularly fascinating about Deliver Us is how practically the filming is executed. Though they’re brief, the “Making Of” and “Locations” featurette offer a little bit of insight into how Hong captured and maintained the intense emotions necessary to captivate audiences. Having a fight scene in a film doesn’t equate to “badass” status. There needs to be creativity, there needs to be impact, in order for the audience to really feel it. Sometimes this means using immersive direction and cinematography, like cinematographer Hong Kyeong Pyo being in the car next to Hwang as he drives his rapidly deteriorating truck through the streets of Bangkok. Or how, as it’s explained, DP Hong and director Hong would employ stop motion in the fights, pausing the action for a fraction of a moment, to enable the audience to see that it really is Hwang and Lee going toe-to-toe in their scenes or other respective fights. There’s a more noticeable fast forward affect during some fights, which the already brutal engagements don’t really need, however, being able to follow the action in the majority of sequences translates to some immersive fight sequences. From the “Making Of” featurette, we learn just how much work Hwang and Lee put in, often after long days on set, with stunt coordinator Lee Geon Moon in order to nail the intensity of their respective characters. Building off their performances are the locations, which become a bit like characters themselves. In the “Locations” featurette, the at-home audience is given a sense of how the film integrated the personalities of Tokyo, Japan, Incheon, Korea, and Bangkok, Thailand, into the film. One thing that would’ve been nice for home audiences to see is more of Hong Kyeong Pyo regarding the set-ups for his shots, partially because of how he took advantage of the wet weather in Tokyo to communicate In-nam’s internal isolation, but also mainly because Bangkok is given a strange sickly-yellow filter that drapes across the otherwise beautiful city. I hadn’t noticed the trend to use the yellow filter on countries like Thailand, India, Afghanistan, and other South Asian countries until many pointed it out in reviews for 2020’s Netflix Original Extraction, referencing other films throughout cinema history which continually do this. There’s one thing to use filters to indicate color tone (gray in Tokyo to indicate depression; vibrancy in pictures of Panama, the place In-nam wants to retire to representing a new beginning), but the specific use of yellow in Bangkok is so overused to bring with it racist overtones of the presentation of supposed under-developed countries. The fact that this specifically isn’t discussed in either of the featurettes is frustrating.
While parts of Deliver Us From Evil do seem in some way derived, inspired, or simply reminiscent of other action thrillers, there’s enough from Hwang and Lee’s performances to keep things fresh and engaging. One stunt specifically during a confrontation is going to be hard to shake from my memory given its inventiveness technically and impact narratively. It’s a small portion within a larger stunt sequence that epitomizes when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object and damned if we aren’t the benefactors. This sequence alone highlights why those who looked unfavorably upon the latest Mortal Kombat looked to Asian cinema as what U.S. filmmakers should study to get the fights right. Don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of Deliver Us which isn’t bloody fisticuffs and it’s intriguing, but the brutal entanglements are definitely a good reason to take a chance on Hong’s second outing.
Deliver Us From Evil Special Features:
- Making Of (5:30)
- Locations (3:12)
- US Trailer
- Well Go USA Previews
Available on Blu-ray, DVD, and digital May 25th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Deliver Us From Evil website.
Final Score: 3.5 out of 5.