South Korean cinema is home to numerous examples of fantastic action movies with films like The Man from Nowhere (2010) and The Villainess (2017) delivering exciting and stylish thrills. They typically feature cool heroes with slim builds facing off against psychos, madmen, and organized crime syndicates. Revenger — the new Korean action/thriller making its world premiere this month on Netflix — takes a slightly different route but still packs in plenty of beautiful, brutal fight scenes.
Kim Yul (Bruce Khan) is an Interpol officer convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment for the attempted murder of the crime boss who killed his wife and daughter. He’s okay with the punishment as the badly burned boss is also going to the same prison — an inescapable island called AP-101 that’s shared by 12 Asian countries in the housing of their worst criminal offenders. Kim’s arrival coincides with an attack on a female prisoner named Maly and her daughter Jin, and after saving them with some killer footwork he discovers the island’s population is divided into two factions. Maly and her daughter are part of a collective of “good” convicts, while Kim’s target, Kuhn, is aligned with the violent, murderous, and truly devious villains who make island life that much more difficult. A clash is a long time coming, and with Kim as the catalyst it arrives in the form of a merciless and bloody slaughter.
Revenger‘s premise and locale make it feel more like a riff on 1994’s No Escape than South Korea’s usual slick, suit-wearing gangster romps, but the core motivator remains the same — revenge. It’s right there in the title! Kim’s goal is simple but quickly becomes entangled in the island feud and his affection for young Jin. They’re familiar character beats and story turns meaning the script (co-written by Khan and Ahn Seung-hwan) isn’t really one of the highlights here. It’s simple, and when it isn’t obvious it’s leaving some pretty big questions unanswered. It’s an action movie, though, meaning script issues can be forgiven if the action is good enough.
Happily, the action is more than just good enough — it’s fucking great.
Khan, a stunt man and fight choreographer, is broad-shouldered, extremely muscular, and blisteringly fast with his kicks and hits. He’s an absolute joy to watch as he tears through rooms filled with foolish thugs thinking they have a shot at bringing him down. His size is unusual for an Asian action hero and more typical for an imposing villain character, but it never impedes his rapid fire attacks, flexibility, or acrobatic skills. Director Lee Seung-won takes full advantage of his skills too by crafting sequences and capturing them in all of their glory. The camera work is never overly flashy or complicated — there are no elaborate one-takes here — but it consistently lets viewers bask in the glory of Khan’s martial arts skills. It’s an odd comparison as they look nothing alike, but he reminds of Donnie Yen with his machine gun punches, killer leg action, and brutish take-downs. Add Khan to the short list of onscreen fighters whose presence makes an action movie an automatic must-watch.
He gets plenty of time in with his fists and feet, but one of the many highlights here is a sequence that sees him take on a dozen guys with swords and machetes after pulling a Willy Wonka to trick them into thinking he’s too weak to fight. Fight choreography is strong throughout with this sequence’s swordplay being especially thrilling. We also get a fun variety of villainous characters from the fully bandaged Kuhn to his motley crew of henchmen including a cool guy, a hunchback, and a badass squad of female archers.
The film’s a winner for action fans, but it stumbles some elsewhere. CG blood is no one’s friend, some attempts at humor feel a bit too goofy for the carnage and bloodletting that bookend them, and the 100 minute running time feels padded with a pair of flashback scenes meant to highlight just how murder-happy Kuhn has been since arriving on the island. We get it, he’s a real prick, but the fact that he executed Kim’s family point blank before his eyes really tells us all we need to know.
Again, though, while greatness throughout is the ideal outcome, action movies really only need to excel in one area — action — and Revenger more than delivers on that front. Bows, arrows, and blades share the screen with fists, feet, and heads, and they’re all sending characters to the hospital and the grave. It already looks like Netflix has once again gifted us with one of the year’s best action movies, and while it’s a wholly different beast from 2018’s Indonesian gem The Night Comes for Us it’s once again an absolute delight to find so accessible to fans. Be sure to watch through the end credits for a dedication to one of the film’s fighters as well as a short bonus scene showing Kim wandering a post-apocalyptic wasteland? I have no clue what that’s about, but I’m ready for it now.