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Illang: The Wolf Brigade

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 06/20/21 20:23:21

"Struggles with bigger themes, but Kim Jee-Woon still brings great thrills."
3 stars (Just Average)

I remember being disappointed with "Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade" when it got a bigger release than was typical for Japanese animation at the time - the boring sort, where nothing actually sticks in one's mind - so was curious when the Korean remake was announced, especially with Kim Jee-Woon in the director's chair. The end result can't quite shake the original's issues, in that the world-building and the drama work at cross-purposes, but Kim is still one of the best genre filmmakers in the world and delivers some great thrills before the movie runs out of steam.

In the near future, aggressive moves by Japan and China push North and South Korea toward reunification, an unpopular move in the South, with a anti-unification group called "The Sect" frequently crossing the line into terrorism. Five years ago, after a disastrous raid that left a dozen middle-schoolers dead, the Special Unit took to wearing faceless helmets; now, another failed operation that was supposed to end The Sect has failed in a public way, leading to suspended Special Unit operations while Public Security investigates. The SU operative involved, Lim Joong-Kyung (Gang Dong-won), was part of the previous mission and would make an ideal scapegoat, but it's politically dicey. PS investigator Han Sang-Woo (Kim Mu-Yeol) is ex-SU and a friend of Lim's, and has Lim return the effects of a dead Sect member to sister Lee Yun-Hee (Han Hyo-Joo). The pair seem to connect, but everyone soon finds themselves involved in an interagency turf war, with Han's PS bosses particularly interested in targeting SU's secretive "Wolf Brigade".

Part of why the original anime version fell short was that its alternate-history hook tended to frame its cautionary tale as a threat averted rather than one that could happen, muting its urgency, while Kim's near-contemporary take is able to reflect both a current international wave of authoritarianism and events in South Korea's own recent history. The early information dump and updated Special Unit designs (a lot of the original WWII inspiration remains despite being tweaked to be sleeker and use more modern materials) get the audience more plugged into the story. The story itself also highlights just how many different sorts of genre movie Kim does well; the moment when the film pivots from into a more complex spy movie is delicious, and there are a couple of moments when he's able to introduce some randomness into his well-oiled machine and have it benefit the movie, like the real test for a conspiracy is not just seeing five moves ahead but being able to react to something unexpected.

As much fun as those twists are, and how a lot of them represent just how paranoid and Machiavellian the various organizations can be, they wind up being piled on in so many layers that they wind up blending into a sort of homogeneous cynicism. There's a line between no person or organization being perfect and nobody being concerned for anything beyond their own hide or power, and Kim's film is often on the wrong side of it, to the point where the finale is numbing even beyond making a point about that sort of pragmatic ruthlessness. The amount of reversals and revelations means that even though there's a very nice cast giving what are generally entertaining performances, only Gang Dong-Won and Han Hyo-joo are able to bring out interesting cores for Lee Yoon-Hee and Lim Joong-Kyung, and that's often figuratively and literally obscured for the sense of darkness and distrust.

On the other hand, Kim can run one hell of an action scene, and unlike a lot of action technicians, he's never just putting together something big and elaborate which will look good enough in a trailer to sell tickets, but serving a storytelling purpose: The opening piece is built to show the humanity of both the SU and the Sect, with the bright red raincoat worn by a teenage courier focusing attention in a way that makes one nervous and morally uncertain about the whole mess, as well as setting up later Red Riding Hood metaphors. Even that wearing end is built to make action fans a little uncomfortable in terms of enjoying over-the-top violence. And then there's the centerpiece which makes this thing only playing theaters in South Korea a crying shame, as Lim walks into a trap and all the precise spy material that the filmmakers have been playing with for the previous half hour erupts into violence and the fact that Gang Dong-Won is able to shift Lim into another super-capable gear doesn't quite make a viewer stop wondering just how he gets out of this really well-constructed box. And then it rolls right into another bit which is a nifty blend of clear and chaotic mayhem.

Kim is so good at so many facets of genre filmmaking - he's made action, horror, thriller, black comedy, and western movies that many would aspire to equal - that the film doesn't grind to a halt as its story gets mired in the specific infighting of imaginary fascists rather than the larger forces that shape them. "Illang" doesn't end up nearly as thrilling and intriguing as it started, but that level is high enough that the movie can fall short and still come out mostly ahead.

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