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‘Cold Eyes’ Review: Who Watches the Watchers? You, If You Like Great Action-Thrillers

By  · Published on July 7th, 2014

NYAFF 2014

NYAFF 2014 runs June 27-July 14 in New York City. Follow all of our coverage here.

Being a member of an elite police surveillance team requires more than a few skills, and Yoon-joo (Han Hyo-ju) thinks she has what it takes. She’s observant and aware of her surroundings, she knows how to blend in to a crowd and she’s capable of defending herself if necessary. Her only weakness really is a refusal to follow orders when it means letting an innocent person suffer, whether they be partner or passerby.

Her skills are put to the test when a brash and brutally effective team of bank robbers starts targeting the city’s financial institutions leading to deadly confrontations. Her boss, Chief Detective Hwang (Sol Kyung-gu) believes his team is up to the task, but when the criminal mastermind known only as James (Jung Woo-sung) catches their eye he realizes too late that some of them may be in over their heads.

Cold Eyes is a simply-plotted but fantastically entertaining thriller that manages impressive action sequences and scenes of suspense alongside character development and a sense of humor. It shouldn’t be a difficult combination, but so few films seem capable of finding that balance as well as this one.

Jo Ui-seok’s script drops viewers right into the action from the first frame, and just as the characters’ job is to watch out for the details the same is asked of the audience. The film opens with two unspooling story threads alternating back and forth. First up is the robbery executed efficiently and near flawlessly by James and his team. One of the crooks tries snatching something extra – something that was not part of the intricate plan – and James reacts with swift and terrifying violence. He is not man to be trifled with, and while Hwang is equally tough on the police officers in his unit he’s also a bit more forgiving.

We first meet him as he’s being followed by Yoon-joo. She tracks him across the city only to stumble slightly at the end. He sees real skill in her though and takes her on as the team’s newbie officer. It’s not long before she’s chastised for choosing empathy over duty, but Hwang is hard-pressed to penalize her actions. It’s a decision he may regret.

Jo also co-directs alongside Kim Byung-seo, and the pair keep the nearly two hour movie moving at a crisp and crackling pace as it bounces between the three leads and some thrilling set-pieces. Much of the action consists of games of cat and mouse that never grow stale thanks to sharp editing and writing that keeps the possibility of detection or mistake just around the next corner. When the players do come to a head the violence – both gunpay and hand to hand – is alive with energy and thrillingly crafted both visually and it its sound design.

As fun as these sequences are though the film is elevated even more by its characters and cast performances. Sol nails the wise but capable mentor figure with both sincerity and affection. Seemingly throwaway motions between him and members of his team reveal a man who cares about his people as more than simple tools to fight crime. Han’s take on the team newbie makes her more than just a generic rookie as we get a real sense of her character through her performance and expressions. Neither character comes saddles with unnecessary back-story as instead we get to know them fully through their present.

Jung has it a bit harder as James is well above the playing-field occupied by his criminal brethren. He’s in no position to show real emotion aside from his increasing frustration with team missteps and the arrival of the police onto his tail. James is showy in his abilities, but he’s never turned into a wise-cracking master villain for entertainment purposes. He’s cool and collected, until he’s not, and Jung finds the humanity between the acts of violence.

Cold Eyes lacks anything resembling a heavy or lasting effect, but the lack of intense drama is never a negative. We’re invested in the two main investigators enough to create moments of real tension, and even the villain holds our attention beyond the showmanship he exhibits. This is slick and exciting action-pop cinema the likes of which Hollywood rarely makes these days, and it deserves to have more eyeballs on it.

The Upside: An exciting and fun watch; all three leads give strong and charismatic performances; hits some unexpected emotional beats; fun cameo at the end

The Downside: Occasionally messy script; some inconsistent CGI

On the Side: This is a remake of the 2007 Hong Kong film, Eye In the Sky.

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.