Directed by Won Shin-yun
South Korea, 2013
It feels safe to argue that the Bourne film series has had a major influence on the action-espionage genre. Granted, spy thrillers that grilled governments for nefarious cover-ups, as well as espionage escapades featuring greater doses of fisticuffs and explosions (such as the Bond franchise), existed long before 2002’s The Bourne Identity and continue till this day. That said, what directors Doug Limon and Paul Greengrass did to the genre was infuse it with a gritty realism in addition to combining stories of unbelievably well-trained spies and political conspiracies. How many action films, be they concerned with spies or otherwise, have strived for the similar documentary ‘in the moment’ visual style? Not all have succeeded, mind you (the term ‘shaky cam’ is used in derogatory fashion more often than not), but those that have deliver in often spectacular ways. Director Won Shin-yun, who hasn’t directed a film in six years, enters this field with The Suspect.
Ji Dong-chul (Gong Yoo, taciturn to say the least) works as the personal driver for an important businessman in South Korea. However, there is much more to Dong-chul than meets the eye, for he is a former North Korean super spy and killing machine who fled his country of origin when the government betrayed him and butchered his wife and daughter. His adventure in The Suspect begins on the night he discovers an intruder in his employer’s home who poisons the latter. Just before passing, the chairman hands over to his driver a pair of glasses onto which an important formula is encrypted. This is only the beginning of Dong-chul’s troubles as the South Korean NIS, led by Kim Seok-ho (Jo Sung-ha), believes the reclusive protagonist to be the killer and sends in a drill sergeant (Park Hee-soon) familiar with Dong-chul to track him down, while the latter tries to clear his name and unravel the mystery behind his employer’s assassination. Easier said than done.
Writing that an action movie takes cues or borrows the tone and look of the two middle Bourne pictures is becoming redundant. Still, it speaks to how powerfully they have resonated in the consciousness of moviegoers that critics and bloggers alike continue to type out such claims for comparative purposes. The Suspect falls very much in line with said style, from its cinematography to its editing, and even in the sort of tale woven throughout the film’s 137-minute running time. The comparisons are impossible to miss, frankly. None of this entails that a movie that borrows from the famous franchise is automatically unworthy of admiration. Provided the recycled ingredients are handled with a modicum of skill, audiences honestly won’t care one iota about the striking familiarity.
In that respect, director Won Shin-yun’s The Suspect is a generally fan-pleasing, sometimes rousing entry in the genre. It boasts tremendous energy, showcasing the amazing tailspin of a chase the anti-hero finds himself caught in with enviable vim and verve. The movie doesn’t trot, it races at the speed of light to the finish line, which is an impressive feat considering it runs just over two hours long. There is nary a dull moment, with director Won and company always intent on pushing the adventure forward with new reveals and more intense action sequences. In line with the popular South Korean style of filmmaking, overt comedy is splashed throughout courtesy of a couple of characters who appear to be bumbling their way through the proceedings more than anything else. Truth be told, the attempts at comedy are a refreshing addition to a genre that so consistently insists on being as serious and dour as imaginable.
Where the film takes a hit or two is in the actual plot. Equally true to the espionage thriller template, The Suspect’s inner workings, the reason why everything is happening, is somewhat convoluted and not nearly as interesting as witnessing how Dong-chul will miraculously escape the next predicament. It comes as little surprise that North-South Korean relations, still tense after six decades, come to play a major role in the film’s events. The tenuous diplomatic bond between the two nations is a frequent launching point for South Korean thrillers, action extravaganzas, comedies, or movies that audaciously blend all three together, such as last year’s Secretly Greatly. Sometimes it pays off, other times less so. In the end, it never seems as if the fact that Dong-chul is from the north means a great deal to the story, save perhaps that the government maniacally murdered his family because that is what evil governments do after all. Food produce is, surprisingly, a more critical plot point in the script, although, sadly, not as compelling as the plight of the defecting agent.
Criticisms aimed at The Suspect’s script can only carry so much weight because that is not what people will go see it for primarily. This being an action movie in an era of grand escapist actioners that seek to offer big and better thrills on a near weekly basis, The Suspect comes away looking (and sounding) much better than most pictures of its ilk. Blindly criticizing shaky cam is a moot point. Of greater pertinence is whether or not said filming technique is used wisely and to strong effect. The answer in this case is a resounding yes. The cuts do indeed come in fast and furiously, but they are for the better part smartly controlled. More importantly, they accomplish what the shaky cam style always aspires to, that being to transport the viewer from their seat to the brawl, firearm exchange or chase at hand, as if they were really there. What’s more, in many scenes the violence is especially brutal. When a character is wasted it looks as though it hurts like hell. Grisly knife punctures and the unnerving, exploding sound of bones snapping on the soundtrack are the name of the game, as is an unequivocally ludicrous yet admittedly pleasing car chase. The movie wants to be so high-octane that Gong-chul’s obstacles grow increasingly preposterous as the movie goes along, to the point where a scene with him swimming away underwater as bullets zip just beside him is almost comedy unto itself.
The Suspect offers willing takers an action movie of the bone-bruising variety. There are no neat and clean kills to be found here. Individuals suffer terrible fates as the lone-wolf protagonist marches on to set right what the powers that be made wrong. The plot is needlessly complex in the second half and the set pieces get a bit too crazy for their own good at times, but even so The Suspect is a must-see for action junkies. Jason Bourne has some competition.