Writer/director Lee Leong-beom‘s second feature, 2010’s The Man from Nowhere, not only became the highest-grossing film in South Korea that year but it also found critical success on the festival circuit here in the U.S. too (our review). The pressure on his follow-up probably matched the high anticipation-level from fans, and now that No Tears for the Dead is here one thing has become inescapably clear… no one films knife-fights as beautifully and effectively as Lee does.
Gon (Jang Dong-gun) is a Korean-born but American-raised assassin living and working in the Los Angeles. His latest assignment, to recover a flash drive filled with sensitive financial data, goes a bit sideways when in addition to killing a half dozen targets he also leaves a young girl dead on the cold concrete floor. He retreats to his apartment and tries to drown his regret in alcohol, but his boss insists that he take on one last mission before he’ll be allowed to retire into the bottle. All he has to do is travel to South Korea and kill the child’s mother, but he can’t bring himself to do it and instead becomes something of a guardian angel as others come to complete the job he abandoned.
No Tears for the Dead once again shows Lee’s mastery of action sequences as everything from the choreography, cinematography, editing and sound design combine to create some incredibly exciting and visceral set-pieces. Fans of his last film’s epic and glorious knife fight will be pleased to see something similar here — albeit in a much shorter form — but it’s the non-action scenes that falter due to a somewhat convoluted story and script. They’re not worth crying over though as there’s more than enough of the good stuff to go around.
The opening scene reveals both Lee’s intentions and Gon’s abilities in perfect, bloody fashion, but after wowing viewers with the fantastically staged gunplay (all set to a jazzy rendition of “Smooth Operator”) the film settles into a long stretch of character-work and plot development. Gon is convinced to accept the hit on the girl’s mother, Mo-kyeong (Kim Min-hee), as she received an email copy of the file meaning Gon hasn’t actually completed the original assignment. The time it takes for him to reach her and plan his strike is shared with flashbacks to his own traumatic childhood and upbringing and scenes of Mo-kyeong’s dealings with police, her job (she’s a financial risk manager at a large banking institution) and visits to her sickly mother.
It’s a lot of background noise in other words that doesn’t always connect either emotionally or dramatically. Gon’s childhood tribulations are meant to slowly reveal not only the man he’s become but also why he takes pity on Mo-kyeong, and while a certain logic eventually comes clear it’s not with anything resembling a heavy realization. Her story is equally low on the effectiveness scale, especially the parts dealing with her own mother. The elderly woman is her last remaining family, but that angle is never played for its dramatic power and instead simply lays there as a fact of the character.
While the background noise falters the much louder noise of gunfire, grunts and musical score succeeds quite well. The aforementioned knife fight is brief but fantastic as are a handful of hand-to-hand brawls, but most of the action is delivered at the end of a smoking barrel. It’s a film to watch with the volume up high as the gunblasts boom and echo throughout the scenes — some of them offering up a Die Hard-feel in the third act — and even the quieter moments are sonic delights thanks to a soothing yet playful guitar score.
No Tears for the Dead is no The Man from Nowhere, but it doesn’t need to be. The action and intensity on display already place it miles ahead of similarly-themed Hollywood films, and it remains an exciting and stylish cinematic experience despite its dramatic missteps. Now if only Lee could be cajoled into not waiting four years again for his next film.
The Upside: Action scenes have weight and grace; Jang Dong-gun is a convincing presence; guitar score
The Downside: Back story not entirely effective; increasing implausibility; some weak CGI
On the Side: Jang Dong-gun underwent physical training for four months at a film-action school in Seoul and combat training in the United States.