One of the more unmentioned action thrillers by wider audiences is director/co-writer Jung Byung-gil’s The Villainess (2017). It’s a story about a female assassin, how she got to where she is, and how she attempts to extricate herself from the life. Jung has admitted to being influenced by Luc Besson’s La Femme Nikita (1990) in constructing the film (which is noticeable when one gets into the details of Villainess), suggesting that Jung is the type of creator who may wear his influences for all to see. This works to great effect in Villainess, a film which, itself, inspired a scene from John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019). This is worth mentioning because much of Jung’s new film, Carter, co-written again with Jung Byeong-sik (The Villainess), seems to be inspired by several films all at once, providing a narrative we’re familiar with told through a myriad of references that engage the audience in one moment and totality destroy immersion in another.
As if waking up with several guns trained on you isn’t bad enough, try doing it with none of your memories. Told by a voice in his head only he can hear that his name is Carter (Joo Won) and being given guidance to get away from the gunmen, Carter springs into action, not yet aware that his next decisions may well hold the fate of the world in his hands.
Since we began talking of influence, let’s explore this aspect first. From the ferocity of the fights, the never-stop action sequences, and camerawork/editing, Carter feels like a strange mix of Crank (2006), Hardcore Henry (2015), The Night Comes for Us (2018), and One Shot (2021). Each of these films contains several fantastic moments and are executed by gifted leads capable of strong stuntwork and performances, even when the narrative takes the action to preposterous places. Combining them together in Carter, when the balance is right, is awe-inducing due to the barbarity the audience feels they are right in the middle of. Soon after Carter wakes, he finds himself throwing down with only his hands and whatever bladed weapons he can get his hands on while defending himself from overwhelming odds. Each stab and slash results in spurts which hit Carter, other fighters, the floor, the walls, and even the camera, an object which spins, rotates, and moves through the action. It’s a stylistic flourish that increases the anxiety level of the audience, raising our own disorientation, feeling almost as lost as Carter must amid the punches, kicks, and attempted weapon strikes. The violence throughout this scene and the rest of the film will delight the most avid fisticuffs enthusiasts who clamor for a more visceral cinematic experience. One stunt sequence in particular seems like an evolution of the motorcycle scene from Villainess, which Jung’s stunt team took from an 8 or 9 and boosted it to a 14.
All of the above is well and good in its parts, however, taken as a whole, Carter falls apart. The violence is high, establishing a similarly high expectation for realism in injury. Instead, our man Carter is nigh indestructible, moreso than any skilled fighter in recent cinema history. I have zero issue with Eui-kang (Jang Hyuk in The Killer) suffering few wounds when you consider that he’s fighting either low-level threats in hand-to-hand combat or using fire arms; there’s little concern with the damage inflicted upon either Inspector Bong Cheung or rival Ngo (Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse in Raging Fire, respectively) as their battle is as equally-matched emotionally as it is physical. There’s no arguing that John Wick (Keanu Reeves) is the Baba Yaga, but even specters can get hurt when they attempt the extraordinary. And yet, just like Chev Chelios (Jason Statham in Crank), Carter rarely seems to get injured in any significant way despite being part of constant gun battles, jumping through windows, running, and executing physics-defying acrobatics. Then there’s the camerawork and editing that seeks to put the audience inside the action to mesh the first-person POV of Hardcore Henry with the extended take style of One Shot which makes the entire film of Carter come to feel like a single-extended shot with very few built-in breaks. As an idea, it’s compelling and one that does amp the adrenaline of the situation Carter finds himself in; however, in execution, it’s not seamless, resulting in a constant push-pull as the camera zooms in, then out to switch angles, then maybe speeds up movement just enough to be abnormal for a moment before slowing it to normal again. The changes in perspective from drone to a more traditional camera operator are constant and grow more noticeable with time, a display of technical skill that’s immersive in the start but grows to distract due to the repetition well before minute 30 of a 132-minute action film. To make matter worse, the further into the story we go, the more the heavy reliance on CG and the obviousness of it divert and distract from the events on screen. This frustrates because Joo Won is clearly a capable leading man, skilled in performance and physical work, and the narrative itself contains some interesting beats, but all of that goodness is brought down by what comes across as an cinematic experiment testing positive for too much at once.
Don’t mistake the issues of the film to suggest that it’s not worth the watch for actionheads. There’s plenty there that will delight (if you can ignore the camerawork) and it’s all wrapped in an interesting plot that involves a deadly virus and geo-political intrigue between North Korea, South Korea, and the United States. Admittedly, I personally liked the idea that North and South Korea might, in the fact of a terrible infection, might seek to work together in an effort to prevent a global pandemic and it’s fascinating to see how this idea is explored and contested through the narrative. Especially when one considers the rather invasive and often parental and predatory manner in which the U.S.A. gets itself involved in global matters, it’s a little nice to see representatives of Americans from the perspective of a differing country, even if they are being presented as antagonists. Given the U.S.A.’s role in global history, the presentation within Carter isn’t too far off from reality, much like the motives of the film’s villains, once finally revealed.
However, even though Carter comes across as an interesting experiment in how to push cinematic storytelling, the more one thinks about the specifics in the timeline, the more the thread unravels into baffling lunacy. For the audience to buy-in on the premise of Carter, one needs to accept certain truths of the world the story takes place in, like the ability to use bio-tech to remove specific functions of the brain. No problem. But as the audience learns specific truths, at least what Carter himself understands to be the truth, aspects of the grounding elements of the narrative fall apart, implying that they happened that way out of narrative need rather than in a manner which follows the rules of the world. This in conjunction with the other technical distractions reduces the whole of Carter to the point that one starts the film in a certain respectful awe and ends up behaving like Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot before the credits start. It’s a total bummer as The Villainess is a tightly constructed dramatic thriller and this follow-up doesn’t come close to measuring up, yet, if one considers Carter as an experiment, that Jung is merely testing techniques, then there remains hope that any follow-up project will take the lessons learned and grant audiences something extraordinary.
Available to stream on Netflix August 5th, 2022.
Final Score: 2.5 out of 5.