Marketing can be the best tool and the worst for selling movies. We’re not talking about deliberate misleads (like the trailer for Avengers: Infinity War (2018) that contained differently edited scenes compared to the final film) or the accidental kind (such as trailers featuring scenes that end up on the cutting room floor), but marketing that implies one type of film only for the audience to receive another. The trailers for The Green Knight (2021) sold an action-centric Arthurian epic, not a character-driven exploration of cowardice. Look at the trailer for In Bruges (2008) and you’ll expect a one-liner-filled comedy, not the philosophical tale of regret that drives the action and comedy. Crimson Peak’s (2015) marketing primed audiences to expect a supernatural horror, so when they received a gothic romance, well, not everyone was ready for that (which is a shame as the film is extraordinary). This is absolutely the case with Director Hwang In-ho’s (Monster) new project Decibel, an action drama centered on a naval commander battling against time and sound to prevent innocent lives from being stolen by a mysterious bomber. The film is headed to U.S. digital services after a world premiere in Fall 2022 and a theatrical release. There is action, there is drama, but it’s not the battle of wits or the will-he-stop-it/won’t-he tension that places the audience on the edge of their seat, but the mystery that powers it all. Strangely, that mystery doesn’t carry the weight it needs to keep its audience locked after the dust of explosions fade.
After a tragedy occurs on a submarine, the commanding officer, Kang Do-young (Kim Rae-won) is hailed as a hero for his leadership in the time of crisis by the higher ups, placing him as a symbol of South Korean excellence. Except someone disagrees with this, placing several bombs around town, luring Kang into a cat-and-mouse game where it’s either truth or deadly consequences as Kang goes where he’s told in an effort to stop each bomb from going off and claiming innumerable victims. But the further along Kang goes, the more he begins to suspect who the bomber is and what they really want. If he’s right, will it be a price he’s willing to pay?
Decibel is a story of two timelines, the past and the present, yet they are presented almost as if happening congruently. The intent of this is to first establish who Kang is to his crew, while also setting the stage for the tragedy to come. At first, the jumping in timelines seems like a way for details of the story to get meted out in portions, thereby enabling the mystery elements time to marinate and swell, but it’s also an interesting way to convey the way Kang and the bomber exist in both places simultaneously. Even before the first bomb appears, when we met Kang in the present, Rae-won conveys a person holding back with immense pressure to do so. Is it survivor’s guilt? Is it the weight of being a figurehead? Questions like these hang in the air as we try to deduce the difference between the Kang we first meet, full of laughter and play, versus the man in his dress whites clinging to anything he can to get through a public press event. In this regard, the narrative from Hwang and first-time feature writer Lee Jin-hoon is at its most powerful when it’s exploring this trauma, not because the audience seeks to revel in his pain, but that it’s here where the character of Kang becomes interesting to observe and the story itself gains traction.
This is the marketing issue mentioned at the start at work. Decibel isn’t a film like the U.S.’s Speed (1994) wherein a situation is put together in order to place the characters in a high-octane situation. Yes, Kang does run from place to place, eventually gaining access to a vehicle via a reporter that unwittingly gets caught in his wake, but the bombs aren’t the important thing and the sound sensitivity is merely a means of creating tension versus narrative purpose. To use the Speed comparison, Dennis Hopper’s Howard Payne is a forcibly-retired bomb expert who wants the payday he feels he’s owed, using the training (and novelty watch) he was given to terrorize L.A. in the process. By comparison, though there are stunt sequences, Decibel is smaller, with the bomber more direct and specific; collateral damage directed, not randomized.
Credit to Hwang and Lee for incorporating more than the standard bomb-and-relay bomber into their story as it makes the bomber far more compelling, especially as presented by Lee Jong-suk (The Witch 2: The Other One). The character, by design, utilizes tech conveying intelligence, cunning, and deadly intent with Jong-suk bringing a cold calculation one moment and blinding rage another that makes the character unpredictable. As the audience’s focal point and guide through the story, Kim has the thankless task of being abused for the duration of the runtime, yet the actor makes each bruise and cut come across as more than wounds in the line of duty, as reparations. If not for the addition of the reporter character, the audience would know far less about the details because Kim as Kang keeps everything close. It’s here that the underlying pain and grief that powers the narrative comes clear: truth shall set you free and too many in this tale are crumbling under the pressure of keeping it hidden. What’s impressive is that Jong-suk enables his character to maintain a certain innocence despite his methods simply due to the circumstances that Kang abetted in keeping secret. This should feel revelatory in the watching as it unfolds (there’s almost always a direct connection between hero and killer, right?), unfortunately, the marketing would rather the audience be waiting for the next explosion and the narrative often follows the same trajectory.
In short, the mystery is far more interesting than the deadly methods of the bomber to get at the truth. This is not great for a drama when it’s an action film.
Thankfully for audiences, the performances from the cast make up for the shortcomings, especially where the drama is concerned. We’re far more keen to lean in when we come to understand motive and victims, sure, but without the commanding presence of both Kim and Jong-suk, their characters would fall flat. Kim manages to make Kang believable as both charismatic leader and drowning derelict in dire need of cleansing. Jong-suk gives Kim a great foil, making his bomber terrifying in his societal dissociation without losing what makes the character human. Setting aside what the marketing wants the film to be, when the actors get to do that — act — the characters come alive, the story casting off the obvious tropes of the action genre.
Some audiences are likely to check out Decibel for supporting cast member Cha Eun-woo (member of K-pop group Astro) and those folks will likely have a great time. Same for those who are looking to get their thrills from a different perspective than the usual Hollywood churn, but one that will still possess a certain familiarity. The film itself is enjoyable thanks to the performances and the willingness of the script to go to the hard places of human existence. That’s where it gets compelling and becomes worth exploring, alarms bells pinging at the originality and freshness. But when it shifts back to the well-worn, there’s barely a murmur.
Available on digital June 6th, 2023.
For more information, head to the official Shaw Entertainment Group Decibel webpage.
Final Score: 3 out of 5.