Champion and Along With The Gods: The Last 49 Days actor Don Lee is probably the best surprise that not a lot of Westerners yet see coming. I’m curious if major studios in Hollywood are willing to look past their own penchants to test this theory for someone who has been in the game for up to thirteen years in film and television, and has since garnered some notoriety in the last two years as a sizeable screen talent in his time.
In the meantime, it’s worth noting that the audience Lee has grown for himself, specifically since his praiseworthy performance in the zombie hit thriller, Train To Busan. Bloggers and journalists nary stopped talking about him and as such, he deserves the coverage he’s gotten which makes one thankful that debut director Kim Min-ho took notice and steered accordingly for Lee’s latest action crime thriller, Unstoppable.
Lee plays Dong-Chul, a seafood transporter who runs a small delivery business with partner, Choon-sik (Park Ji-won). Dong-Chul a hard worker, coupled with his kind, humble personality – a trait which, in the eyes of more seedy individuals, comes across as gullible and passive, even if the local union head passes him over on pay day. His steadfastiness as a hopeful entrepreneur also holds a strain on his marriage with his otherwise loving wife Ji-soo.
Dong-chul decides to treat his wife to a big birthday dinner, followed by a reveal that forces what should have been a festive date night to end early. Ji-Soo gets home, visibly upset and calms down, only to find herself the target of a vicious home invasion and kidnapping. After arriving late to find his home in disarray with Ji-Soo missing, Dong-Chul goes to the police for answers.
The investigation begins and of course, Dong-Chul has no leads, until he gets a call from Ki-Tae (Kim Sung-oh), the elusive crimeboss responsible for Ji-Soo’s kidnapping. With little-to-nothing turning up from the cops thusfar and with Choon-sik’s help, Dong-Chul is resigned to take matters into his own hands. Because of this, there’s a twist to Dong-Chul’s resolve: He’s got a past that many, save for those who watch the news, aren’t aware of.
Dong-Chul’s past as a notorious gangster isn’t really put on focus at any real point in the film. Offered in just a few passing mentions, it’s enough to rouse the senses as we watch our formerly reformed yesteryear thug go from quiet, domesiticated husband and day laborer to a full-on fucking beast on a mission to rescue the woman he loves.
Park Ji-won’s Choon-sik provides the ample support alongside Kim Min-jae who plays Bear, a master of deception who can get in-and-out of almost any situation, and can find nearly anyone, anywhere, and for a price. The two come with their own minor gags at certain times but comedy here is incidental and not so contrived as to take away from the central focus of the film.
Key to the film’s sympathy factor is the drawback of fervor as we spend the first-third of the film observing Dong-Chul’s marriage with Ji-Soo. Ji-Soo is the clear alpha female on certain matters that require a sense of outspokeness compared to her husband. In wake of their financial strain, there are clear, visible moments where Ji-Soo is willing to do almost anything on a litigatory level to bring some ease to their wallets. Her quiet, contemplative moments are more telling between scenes, and evidently serve as a testament to their marriage.
Kim Sung-Oh’s performance as the villainous Ki-tae definitely feels like it needed more than a cynical side to his m.o.. His more menacing demeanor is introduced well enough early in the second half of the film with several of his men lonesharking an old man whose daughter unknowingly enters and becomes victim to Ki-tae’s will.
Kim’s freshman directing gig accomodates as many of the highs you might expect in a film aptly focused on fleshing out Lee’s action star power of late. Lee Sung-je’s cinematography makes all the difference with the film’s action in an age where some directors date try to make fight-heavy action movies, and think they can get away with applying the old rules (I’m talking to you, Mr. Berg).
Dong-Chul’s boiling point arrives after a pivotal moment at the police station, realizing the statistics and slimming chances of getting Joo-si back alive. The very first fight scene is a brilliant indicator of just who Dong-Chul is, bringing a touch of wit to the tone of the action; Granted, Dong-Chul isn’t impervious as much as he still gets hurt, but its never not before he brings the pain first himself, and he takes on all comers.
Armed with the sheer will of an Asian, bodybuilding Liam Neeson, Lee’s gangbuster fight finale, in particular, is the film’s biggest takeaway on the action front with his character laying waste to Ki-tae’s men singlehandedly. The action is peppered with a few stunning surprises, one in which Dong-Chul squares off with an expert kicker, and thereafter with 6’5″ actor Park Kwang-jae.
Unstoppable has a literary translation etched as “Angry Bull”, an element to the story that explored only once in the film. Aside from this, Dong-Chul’s origins play second fiddle to the crux Kim presents for his first movie. More importantly, his status of cynosure is the best underlier from start to finish, and through the mid-credits with all certainty of being an underdog protaginist worth cheering for, and with every punch to the face.
Ample drama and healthy, well-balanced character development give way for our hero to hit the gas in Unstoppable, with riveting high-speed chases and enthralling, body-slamming fight scene action as the cherry on top to for Lee’s latest and deserving return to the big screen.
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