There’s a subgenre in film that features a very simple and comfortable setup: retired/reclusive individual meets a young individual, forms a bond (often reluctantly), young individual gets into trouble (usually kidnapped) causing the retired/reclusive individual to jump back into action. The most widely popular example of this in modern cinema is Pierre Morel’s Taken (2008), but this can also apply (even loosely) to recent releases like The Transporter (2002), B13 (2004), Man on Fire (2004) The Equalizer (2014), Deliver Us from Evil (2020), and Choi Jae-hun’s The Swordsman (2020). This handful of releases barely scratches the surface on this type of “vengeance/reclamation” action film. Enter The Killer (더 킬러: 죽어도 되는 아이) (2021), directed by Choi and adapted from the Bang Jin-ho novel The Girl Who Deserves to Die, having its Canadian premiere during Fantasia International Film Festival 2022. Living up to its title, The Killer sees Choi reteaming with Swordsman lead Jang Hyuk, dishing out brutal beatings and instantly lethal killshots with extreme precision as a babysitter who should never have been crossed. Impressively, amid the banter and bloodshed, there’s a compelling subtext about the real evils of the world.
When his wife announces that she’s going on a three-week vacation with a friend, Eui-kang (Hyuk) doesn’t think much of it until she tells him that he’s going to babysit her friend’s daughter, Kim Yoon-ji (Lee Seo-Young, a.k.a. Anne of K-pop group GWSN). That part gets his attention and, despite his protests, he ends up doing as his wife asks. The night he goes to pick up Yoon-ji from school, he gladly drops her off to stay with a friend, thinking it’ll get him more time to himself. Problem is, Yoon-ji ends up in trouble, the kind that gets the attention of a sex trafficking ring. Knowing that not intervening will result in disappointing his wife, Eui-kang sets on recovering Yoon-ji and those goons aren’t prepared for the composed killer on their doorstep.
In their last collaboration, The Swordsman, the best part of it was the stunt choreography. Hyuk doesn’t just play a badass swordsman, the stuntwork makes it believable. Granted it helped that Hyuk’s Tae-yul went up against an equally credible villain in Joe Taslim’s Kurutai (Taslim known for films such as: The Raid: Redemption (2011), The Night Comes for Us (2018), and Mortal Kombat (2021)) who helped sell Tae-yul’s legendary status. Nam Ji-woong’s script for The Killer doesn’t include as high-profile an opponent, but the audience is keen to believe in Eui-kang’s abilities not because Hyuk is so effortlessly cool in the role, but because the script consistently demonstrates that each henchperson is basically fodder for the action machine. Put another way: how many films have hailed their lead character, in their prime or retired, as the best there ever was and then made them struggle to succeed throughout the film? Perhaps they had them struggle against a particularly tough adversary a few times throughout the story before eventually defeating the adversary in the end. Nam’s script does away with all that, constantly and consistently putting Eui-kang in situations where he dominates, never once shedding his unenthusiastic-bordering-on-ambivalence demeanor in any battle sequence. For American audiences looking for an apt comparison, Eui-kang is John Wick (Keanu Reeves) but more stoic and less prone to injury. It’s actually pretty refreshing as an action film fan to see the majority of tropes in a narrative like this dropped as it makes the experience as a whole feel consistently unpredictable. Granted some of the stunt work is harder to follow due to the editing as a means of communicating impact from a punch or kick via a wide shot to a close-up, but the impact is still felt. Perhaps one of the best stunt sequences is a fairly seamlessly edited together long take in a hallway of Eui-kang versus many. Considering that, by this point in the film, we still don’t know much about Eui-kang, Nam’s script doubles-down on showing versus telling why the audience should believe in The Killer.
Speaking of the script, another highlight is that The Killer doesn’t shy away from the darker elements of its narrative. Without getting into spoilers beyond the above summary, Eui-kang journey through Korea’s criminal underbelly goes from seedy streets, bars, hotels with devilishly clever names (Don’t Tell Papa), all the way to affluent party scenes. In each location, though Eui-kang as a man on a mission doesn’t linger to consider the implications, Choi doesn’t hesitate to highlight certain elements in the establishing shots (like girls being driven into a storage unit being loaded onto a boat headed out of Korea) to make it clear just how high the stakes are for Eui-kang to retrieve Yoon-ji and what kind of fate she’s headed for. Additionally, without losing any ounce of momentum, Nam’s script acknowledges that retrieval doesn’t mean “safe,” requiring Eui-kang to continue his mission with extreme prejudice. What kind of babysitter would he be to not see it through? Considering the dark places the script goes narratively, revealing a proper web of villainy to make up the “thriller” portion of this action thriller, one point of issue is the attempt at a happy ending, focusing solely on Eui-kang’s closed narrative and ignoring the obvious trauma Yoon-ji is saddled with. This is par for the course for the retrieval subgenre, an issue where the film is more about the retriever than the taken. Sadly, most of what Anne is given as a role is either an adolescent-fueled sense of superiority or attempting to get her way that mostly comes across as whining. At least initially. As Yoon-ji continues through the story, Anne is allowed the opportunity to remove Yoon-Ji’s childish shell for a few more authentic moments. Because of this, by the end, Anne feels less like a prop and more like a character, though not by much.
Mentioned in passing above but worth diving into is how The Killer establishes Eui-kang’s skill and the way this amplifies the enjoyment of the film as a whole. In most cases, a film like this would involve a character close to Eui-kang proclaiming, either to him or someone else (Paul Rayburn (Christopher Walken) serves this purpose in Man on Fire) or Bennett (Vernon Wells) in Commando (1985), just how adept at killing Eui-kang is so that the audience has a reputation to serve as a baseline. Going back to the John Wick comparison, it’s the “Baba Yaga” scene in John Wick (2014) or the literal opening of John Wick: Chapter Two (2017) with Abram’s (Peter Stormare) narration of the prior film’s events. The Killer completely forswears this technique. The film does open with a Eui-kang-delivered beatdown, but that’s the only evidence of Eui-kang’s skills prior to his proper introduction and everything else the audience gets is in the moment. This means that each altercation serves to establish the mystique, but it also means that the audience doesn’t possess an expectation. This unpredictability creates an opportunity in every action sequence for the audience where they don’t know what can or will happen. To describe it as refreshing is an understatement. In many ways, by eschewing the familiar along the consistent subgenre narrative beats, Choi’s The Killer offers surprises at near every turn.
In a word, The Killer slays. It balances heart and emotion with a cold calculation that delivers the body count action fans want in a myriad of ways. Even when the action feels a little cramped, the stuntwork harder to track, what the stunts give to the narrative that words do not demonstrates a higher-level of understanding regarding the significance of stunts as a critical component to cinematic storytelling. With the narrative within The Killer satisfactorily concluded, one can hope that Choi and Hyuk find a new project to reteam on. This reviewer will be one of the first in line when they do.
Screening during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
For more information, head to the official The Killer Fantasia International Film Festival film page.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.