As you’re reading this, I’m somewhere between wanting to let my memory breathe so I can suss my thoughts, and wanting to put on record what came to mind per the moment. That’s pretty much the common mindset for anyone driven to express themselves in someway or another, and all the while, I couldn’t be happier that a guy like Bruce Khan is channeling his creative fervor through martial arts and action cinema.
His career is bookmarked with only a handful of film titles in several facets in stunts and set-extra, and even actor. I’m even more curious to see how well his role was in the KBS2 drama, The Bridal Mask, what with my own penchants toward Korean dramas every now and then. His 2005 film, Young Man Kang’s The Last Eve, remains an appreciated and beloved gem for the film festival crowds lucky to catch it on the big screen.
Going forward, filling in the blanks left in the last thirteen years should be a treat if Khan decides to maintain a more public profile. At 50 years of age with mastery in Hapkido and Tae Kwon Do, and sharing hands-on experience with the likes of film legends whose career lingeage stretch as far back as his childhood idol, Bruce Lee, it certainly feels like a long time coming for the aspiring actor who, as it stands, finally gets to take the spotlight in wide-spanning fashion.
The proliferation of Netflix serves as a plus in this instance for Khan in the wake of his newest film, Revenger, formally titled ‘Legend’, but bolsters impressively with a similar fitting tone that indie cinephiles can appreciate. Khan is joined by director Lee Seung-won for his third at the helm since debuting in 2015 with Communication & Lies, and succeeding with Happy Bus Day in 2017. Lee also served as an assisstant director to Won Shin-yeon on 2013 spy thriller, The Suspect, and a few years later on suspense thriller, Memoir Of A Murderer.
Revenger, reportedly shot in South Korea and Indonesia, immerses you in a grim world set in a not-too-distant future where notorious death row criminals and degenerates are sent to AP-101, a remote island out in the Indian Ocean facilitated by 12 Asian countries. Khan emerges from the sun-lit beach backdrop as Kim Yul, a former interpol agent whose intentions on the island are a mystery due to his quiet, albeit brooding nature.
After saving the life of a young girl named Jin (Kim Na-hyeon) and her mother, a Mal-ri (Yoon Jin-seo), from a vicious gang, Jin invites Yul to their village where he takes brief refuge. Whereas Jin sees Yul as a potential asset to the village with an underlying kindness, the village’s self-proclaimed guardian, Ba-woo (Kim In-kwon), is more concerned with asserting his dominance to shroud his insecurities – a precursor to trying and failing effortlessly to impress Mal-ri at times.
Pressed for details, Yul implores the village for directions to one Carlos Kun (Park Hee-soon), and eventually sets forth on his journey to Kun’s hideout to exact justice for the murder of his wife and daughter. From there, the only other hurdle is Jin, recalcitrant to a fault and eager to avenge the death of her own father as she follows Yul close behind.
With Kun’s men running amuck and terrorizing the island, it’s not long before Yul will have to apply his deadly skillset several times over, pillaging and plowing his way through Kun’s small armies of killers hunting other death row lifers for nefarious ends. It’s also not long before the severly disfigured, grisly-voiced and bandaged Kun learns of Yul’s arrival, ultimately setting the tone for a deadly showdown between two of the most dangerous men on the island.
The revenge genre is never not an interesting one to play with. When done right, it can prove to be one of the most enthralling moviegoing experiences. The don’t even have to be perfect if some elements outweigh others. What matters is that they entertain adequately and cohesively without befalling the same infractions and errs other filmmakers may tend to stumble into.
With Revenger, the summation of what you get is a story with a hero totally worth rooting for – He doesn’t aspire to be one, and the film doesn’t try to push that narrative onto you for a number of reasons. For one, Yul is driven by a blood-for-blood code, arriving at the island, encumbered with a mask and a stray jacket, and not for nothing either as the plot further entails this as of his own design. Flashbacks highlight the specifics of how this came to be, and you can pretty much put two-and-two together.
Yul’s entry into the island also serves as just the kind of benchmark for any revenge film whose protagonist or anti-hero in any other media would otherwise be hampered by societal norms. Essentially, the lawless environment encompassing the island becomes Yul’s own hunting ground, akin to the kind of omnious forewarning left by Watchmen author Alan Moore whose Walter Kovacs so infamously etches in the annals of comic book history the line: “None of you understand. I’m not locked up in here with YOU. You’re locked up in here with ME.”
It sets up a intriguing, underlying question surrounding his humanity as you watch him essentially punish and penetrate every evil orifice of Kun’s army. There’s at least one point where lapses in his own judgement doesn’t immediately see him taking to doing the right thing right away, as quiet and internalized as his struggle is. He’s definitely at a precipice, mentally, but he also doesn’t forget why he’s on the island to begin with, and he’s definitely poised to save a life when called upon.
Director Lee’s influences are on full display at most points throughout the film, elevating Khan as a solid action hero frontrunner. Taking to mind that aforemetioned perception on graphic novel lore, Khan is very much in his element, and much to the favor for his role as a revenge-driven killer traumatized by the death of his family. He’s a live-action incarnation of everything anyone has grown fond of in film and even manga or manhwa novels.
Much like the widely-loved Bruce Lee in his heyday, there’s much to exhibit in how Khan’s own acting can continue to grow and improve overtime in various ranges. Revenger doesn’t call for a huge stretch on drama for Khan, who still manages to emanate as much emotive content from time to time so as to abstain from looking like a cardboard cut-out of himself.
Actress Yoon takes the very frontline of the action as Mal-ri within the first few minutes of the film. There’s a small surprising addendum to her character that ups the stakes just a little bit as the film progresses, while watching her mitigate with her daughter about helping Yul. Her role as Mal-ri illustrates her as a tough, tenacious survivor and essential killer if need be, able-bodied and skilled with a blade and a bow-and-arrow and enough CQC knowledge to take on men twice her size. Mal-ri simply excites on screen as she gets to have her own little Rambo moment as she squares off with another archer, and in a later scene with actor Choi Je-heon who plays Kun’s tattooed enforcer, delivers one of the most badass lines in the movie.
Park Hee-soon’s Carlos Kun makes work of the hair and make-up department for his role. Early pictorals and poster art show his character but if you’re not sharp or can’t read Korean, you can’t really tell if it’s him until you actually see this film which I think is pretty brilliant PR in its own right. Aside from this, Park does incredible work for the role of the menacing Kun. He’s the kind of crimeboss you would expect – the kind that will console you with one hand and take your life with another if you’re the poor soul in his path. His character is written and presentes formidable as Yul’s equal in both fighting prowess and resolve, which makes watching the two characters square off all the more worthwhile and thrilling.
Kim Na-hyeon’s role as Jin, Mal-ri’s daughter and one of several children on the island, keeps the balance as the heart and soul of the film. It’s a role you’ve seen already in film you’ve seen-ish already, while it stills helps drive the empathy some for our characters. Kim In-kwon’s Ba-woo is the comedic relief whose own character isn’t without its own shades of grey. He means well, though it bears worth noting he’s still a death row criminal like everyone else, and in the course of these events, has his own moral compass tested when desperate times call for desperate measures. The film’s sometimes jarring comedy also extends to actor Park Chul-min who plays Ipa, the village’s old, wise medicine man who often falls into bipolar spells; there’s kissing involved here too, and I’ll pretty much leave it at that.
The all-too-familiar “Raid-style” of action takes a backseat for the direction whilst still making integral use of the camera for the choreography and stunt performances. There are certain choice areas where the action is hampered by excessive editing but the action overall makes up for it by simply letting Khan do what he does so well for the lens.
The legendary likes of Bruce Lee and Akira Kurosawa take centerstage on occasion as Khan emulates quintessential Asian, silent-but-deadly tough guy badassery through and through. His face, apart from his age, does wonders for the suggestive, nuance and drama that ensues. When fighting, his moves speak for themselves. When he kicks, he kicks big, fast, high and far, and when it counts, the camera pulls back plentily for the audience to see him take flight feet first to another guy’s body.
It’s definitely far from a negative in analyzing Khan as an action star. There’s simplicity worth admiring for Khan’s role in which he has very few lines in his dialogue, and Lee plays on those strengths as often as possible to the film’s benefit; Yul is mostly comprised of physical acting and nuances; he’s hesitant to talk to anyone but he’s intelligent enough to know what’s happening when it happens, and more to the point, he’s got the strength, speed and killer instinct to flatten a room full of goons and survive if he so wishes.
Comprising the key action line-up next to combined units of both Indonesian and Korean stunt talent, the aforementioned Choi shares one of the film’s best fight scenes opposite Khan, and with actor Ahn Gap-yong who plays Kun’s hunchback dual sword-wielding henchman. The cinematography zooms in steadily with all three actors carefully in one of the most riveting shots of the film, moving almost in personified unison with Khan.
The action-caliber line-up also enlists T.J. Storm who shares nearly three decades of work in acting and martial arts in TV and film, performing motion capture stunts as recently as 2016’s Deadpool, Godzilla and its upcoming sequel, and co-starring in recent actioners like Boone: The Bounty Hunter, The Martial Arts Kid opposite Don “The Dragon” Wilson, and in Alain Moussi’s own debut, Kickboxer: Vengeance.
Storm’s guest-starring appearance was surprising to learn upon catching him in a behind-the-scenes video, and watching the film, it definitely suits the narrative some; The island itself bears no nationality for its mixture of inhabitants. That actors such as Khan, as well as Park Hee-soon, Im-kwon and a few others can be seen speaking English among the film’s few dialects, Korean included, also makes for a convenient set piece in the movie.
Revenger‘s addition to Netflix comes at a very auspicious time in the wake of arrivals such as Boyka: Undisputed, and last year’s The Night Comes For Us and The Debt Collector Among Others. I would have loved a blu-ray or VOD release myself, but seeing that it’s been fourteen years since Khan was in a movie anywhere near as prolific as this, it’s only suitable.
Despite a story that feels stagnant and a protagonist who isn’t given much to work with, Revenger makes plenty of room for its frontman to finally strech his legs for a wider audience. Whereas Kang’s The Last Eve helped get Khan as far as both feet in the door, Revenger, essentially, is Khan’s calling card for anyone looking for the next action star. The film’s mid-credits easter egg, following a paid tribute to one of the film’s key action unit members, Kim Pil-su who passed away during the film’s production, is a lovely nod to this notion by revealing a shot of Khan in a scene re-imagined or inspired by a beloved manga/anime classic – far be it for me to protest either, as I would totally see some version of THAT movie too (remember what I said about director Lee’s influences?).
If you’re hard-up for a good action movie to kill time to, Khan has more than earned your two hours with Revenger. It’s amply enough to hold you over until Yuji Shimomura’s Re:Born hits the streaming service if Netflix users would be so lucky. And more to the point, Khan, by far, is an inarguably a proven talent in this film. Invariably in his prime, he’s a white-knuckled, steel-faced, brooding mass of martial arts stardom and potential who has been obscured for far too long, and it’s high time producers and directors started looking in his direction.