There are action thrillers and then there are action thrillers. The difference is that the former promises edge of one’s seat excitement through and through, and while it partially delivers on its potential it inevitably drags in parts with either convoluted plotting or characters that are too distant for the viewer to warm up to. The latter is the trump card, the action thriller that doesn’t even feel as if it is letting up even in instances when it may very well be doing just that. The South Korean directing duo of Cho Ui-seok and Kim Byung-seo brings the goods with their recent endeavor Cold Eyes, a frantic mishmash of espionage, police procedural and chase film.
In a breathtaking opening sequence in which all of the principle characters are effortlessly introduced, young hopeful surveillance officer Han Hyo-ju (Han Hyo-joo) is partaking in a test of her observation skills in the field with Chief detective Hwang (Soi Kyung-gu). Hwang has Hyo-ju follow him around through the subway system and through the streets of a metropolis, all the while the villain of the piece, James (Jung Woo-sung), masterminds an explosive bank robbery that has the police dumbfounded as to the identity of the perpetrators. Enter Hwang and his team of experts, including Hyo-ju, newly-minted member and proud of it. What follows is, for all intents and purposes, an extended investigation amped up by a series of chases as Hwang desperately attempts to put handcuffs on a new villain whose power and efficiency cannot be put into question.
As previously alluded to, Cold Eyes is bustling with energy from start to finish, to the extent that even when the surveillance team is not in the midst of their mission of capturing an extremely elusive target, the film never feels as though it is slowing down. Dialogue scenes are peppered with juicy lines of banter that not only amuse but also shed some light on the characters the viewer is invited to follow. True enough, the level of development invested into making Hwang, Hyo-ju and some of the other specialists is not necessarily of the highest order, yet it accomplishes enough for them to actually mean something for the audience members.
It helps that stars Soi Kyung-gu and Han Hyo-joo have excellent chemistry as the archetypal teacher and apprentice. There is a level of respect each shows towards the other that admirably eschews at least some more stereotypical arcs. For instance, rather than Hwang constantly having to put Hyo-ju in her place for reasons of pride or protocol, he is fully open to hearing and even implementing her strategies if it means getting closer to the nefarious crook. Equally satisfying is the relative straightforwardness of Han Hyo-ju herself. The film doesn’t make an issue of the fact that she is a female member, forgoes the inclusion of a love interest, and reveals next to nothing about her domestic or social lives. Actress Han Hyo-joo is tasked with bringing something to the role herself, albeit in a limited capacity given the picture’s frantic pace. She equips herself well enough with subtle yet effective demonstrates of her steadfastness, intelligence, and a sense of humour.
As for the action, directors Cho Ui-seok and Kim Byung-seo deliver in spades, upping the ante in consistent and convincing fashion, making the lives of the heroes more difficult with every passing day in the field. The movie superbly juggles the more visceral side to their line of duty with some well-directed foot chases and gun play while making surveillance itself look amazing. For comparative purposes, one may think back to the scenes at Langley in the Bourne films or whenever that franchise’s protagonist performed reconnaissance missions on his own from a distance. Cold Eyes is all of that with slick editing, nicely dynamic camera work, and pacing that practically feeds off of its own energy. The common criticism of movie characters talking on cellphones or through ear pieces being dull need not apply in this case. The directors pull out all the stops to make everything sound and look exhilarating. Whether or not how the protagonists go about performing their tasks is true to life is of little consequence when it is as much fun to watch unfold as it is here.
The one popular term to describe the picture is ‘badass’. It isn’t a very professional or literarily apt word to summarize what a film comes across as, but as a succinct bit of praise it fits the bill perfectly. One has to be especially averse to modern filmmaking techniques in order to come away disliking the directorial choices exercised in Cold Eyes. Yes, the editing is as rapid as that of so many of today’s thrillers, but the key is know why to cut to another frame and how. Judging by this film, Cho Ui-seok and Kim Byung-seo know just how to proceed. Cold Eyes is easily one of the year’s best action films.
— Edgar Chaput