Movies · Reviews

‘Peninsula’ Delivers a Heist Film in the ‘Train to Busan’ Universe

It’s more ‘Escape from L.A.’ than ‘Escape from New York,’ but there are fun thrills to be had here.
A zombie horde in Peninsula
Well Go USA Entertainment
By  · Published on August 27th, 2020

Filmmakers have one very important choice to make before moving forward on a sequel to a popular movie. Do you go with more of the same and what clearly already worked? Or do you take a chance and try something new? Films have found success on both paths, so there’s no right or wrong answer here necessarily, but not every film can swing both. 2016’s terrifically intense and heartfelt Train to Busan is a rarity in that it’s received two follow-ups, both of which are entirely different creations. While Seoul Station (2016) is an animated prequel, Peninsula is a new live-action story set in the same world — that too often feels like every other post-apocalyptic zombie thriller.

Captain Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) sees the zombie plague growing and works to evacuate family members from the city before it’s overrun, but his efforts run afoul of human behavior. Four years later, still grieving his loss and feeling guilty over his failure, he heads back into South Korea on a mission to retrieve millions in U.S. cash. He and the team are successful, but their extraction doesn’t go nearly as smoothly. Jung-seok finds himself in league with two industrious young sisters (Lee Re, Lee Ye-won) and their equally capable mother (Lee Jung-hyun), and soon he’s once again trying desperately to escape the city.

Director/co-writer Yeon Sang-ho returns with Peninsula, but rather than deliver a direct sequel or more of the same he instead aims for a different kind of familiar. The film forgoes much of what makes Train to Busan so intensely affecting in favor of a somewhat more generic setting — the world is populated by pockets of survivors, the city is filled with zombie hordes, and the most dangerous villains remain the living. Where the last film found terror and emotion by unleashing the undead into an otherwise normal day recognizable to us all, Peninsula drops viewers alongside new characters into the overly familiar sci-fi setting of a post-apocalyptic landscape.

By definition, this means more CG as well, and that’s just one more layer of disillusionment between viewers and the unfolding action. Driving scenes, of which there are several, are a mix of CG and rear projection, and zombie masses are equally artificial. The result is a series of zombie attacks and action beats that lack the immediacy and terror of its predecessor. Add in a muted color palette and emotional beats that range from lackluster to exaggerated, and Peninsula is an undeniably lesser experience than Train to Busan.

Of course, all of that said, it’s a fantastic idea blending a zombie movie with a heist film, and Yeon has fun with the concept. The sub-genre has been stale for a long time, and injecting it with a bit of a Fast & Furious vibe is an entertaining move. The film feels bigger too, from its English-speaking news broadcast at the start (complete with the requisite terrible acting from Westerners) to its slightly more international vibe moving from Korea to Hong Kong and back to Korea again. The script layers the heist element with difficulty and double-crosses, and while most of it is visible well in advance Yeon still crafts the beats with style and energy. Vehicular shenanigans, gun fights, and last-second reprieves fill the time with a balance of high-stakes drama and silliness.

Train to Busan succeeds in part because of the emotional investment it encourages in its characters, and while Peninsula can’t compete to the same degree the characters are still engaging. The emotional interactions are frequently heightened to exaggerated degrees, particularly in the third act, but it’s a silliness that works for the antics at hand. The sisters, in particular, are capably plucky and given plenty of action beats of their own. The desire to deliver fun and thrills leaves the film feeling less threatening, but the two young actors are are unavoidably affecting. The adults are a mix of familiar post-apocalyptic character types, but heroes and villains (Koo Kyo-hwan, Kim Min-jae) alike tear through the CG-afflicted landscapes with enjoyable abandon.

Peninsula is an energetic and entertaining ride through an urban landscape littered with both the skeletal remains of civilization and the cliches of the subgenre. What it lacks in originality, though, it makes up for with competency and enthusiasm as Yeon has fun riffing in a world of his own creation. Sure we’ve seen villains feeding other humans to zombies for sport, but here the undead come crawling out en masse in creepy as hell fashion — you’ve seen it before but never quite like this.

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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.