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With stunt multi-hyphenate Heo Myung-haeng set to smack down the Berlinale this year with The Roundup: Punishment, Netflix subscribers got a first glilpse of his directorial caliber reteaming him once more with actor Don Lee for dystopian thriller, Badland Hunters. I had my doubts about watching this before seeing Um Tae-hwa’s earthquake thriller Concrete Utopia given Heo’s movie was touted as a sequel, though the messaging on that end tapered off quite a bit as the months passed and really, Badland Hunters lands well enough as a standalone spectacle anyway.
Indeed, the film does throw in a devastating seismic event at the top of the film but for the remaining hour and a half-plus, it’s pretty much forgotten about as we focus on Kim Bo-tong and Kwak Jae-min’s script and its journey into a Korea thrown into ruin where survivors all live in rural villages where clean water and food are as scant as they come. One such village is where we meet our protagonists Nam-san (Don Lee) and Ji-wan (Lee Jun-young) who are soon thrust into a rescue mission following a devious incident in which an elderly woman is murdered, unbeknownst to her granddaughter, Su-na (Roh Jeong-eui) who is already being bused to a tower block miles away, fortified by military and operated under the guise of a pardisical escape where families can live and work, and access basic essentials.
The darker twists that ensue in Badlands force Su-na to question her surroundings, including and especially the intentions of the tower block’s in house doctor, Yang Gi-su (Lee Hee-jun) who has more than his fair share of skeletons in his closet. The top of the movie amply affirms this aspect of this story, placing him well into the antagonist category with enough motive to distrust him while everyone else seems beholden to his message of promise and hope. As Su-na learns the truth, it’s up to Nam-san and Ji-wan, and AWOL soldier Lee Eun-ho (Ahn Ji-hye) to battle their way through gangs marauding the wasteland and warring with one another, and to find the answers they need in order to locate the tower block and resuce Su-na, and ultimately help expose Gi-su for the mad scientist he is.
The result for much of Badland Hunters, for what it’s worth, is about as good a time as you would hope from a South Korean actor known for knockout roles in similarly knockout hit films, and a filmmaker who himself is a stunt professional, and even doubles for his star. The first scrimmage finds our lead characters tackling a crocodile, which also lends a bit of foreshadowing to an extent, with relevance to Dr. Yang’s experiments. Laying it nice and thick of course is the action with each main character getting in on the scuffles, ultimately pitting heroes against supersoldiers who don’t take kindly to responding to fatal blows unless they’re killed in a specific way. Lee himself is a blast as always, and Ahn is terrific in a much more physically demanding role this time following her performance in Kim Hong-sun’s Project Wolf Hunting.
Among some of the film’s reunions are Lee’s Unstoppable cohort Park Ji-hoon who plays one of the soldiers, as well as the role of haphazard gangleader Tiger, played amicably by Park Hyo-joon who also shares space with Lee in the Bad Guys franchise. Also of Project Wolf Hunting fame is actress Jang Young-nam who puts on her best Tilda Swinton in Badland Hunters as a teacher who serves the tower block and is responsible for educating the families’ children, all of whom are coming-of-age and chosen specifically for reasons the film does exponentially well in revealing as the story winds up to its big climatic finish.
Badland Hunters is also not the most brillant action flick, but it defintely doesn’t need to be. For more than 108 minutes, you get a solid popcorn action flick with Lee toplining the kind of brutal and even gory smackdowns fans of the genre crave. It’s a fun film with badass characters, and a story that ends on a solid note, and that’s all one really asks for, and for those reasons and more, it’s fair to assert that Heo’s future projects are in great hands.
Badland Hunters is available on Netflix.
Native New Yorker. Lover of all things pizza, chocolate, pets, and good friends. Karaoke hero. Left of center. Survivor. Fond supporter of cult, obscure and independent cinema - especially fond of Asian movies and global action cinema. Author of the bi-weekly Hit List. Founder and editor of Film Combat Syndicate. Still, very much, only human.