As part of Edinburgh International Film Festival 2019.
Asian actions films often feel like they have a little more soul than their Hollywood counterparts. It may be that only the decent ones find their way to Western audiences, but whether it’s Chow Yun-Fat‘s jazz-loving cop in Hard Boiled, or Won Bin‘s paternal angel of vengeance in The Man from Nowhere, there’s an indefinable something that makes them linger years down the line. We can add Ma Dong-seok‘s Dong-chul to the list of memorable action protagonists. Billed as a Korean spin on the Taken formula, Unstoppable has the thrills of the Liam Neeson vehicle, but more satisfying characterisation and a rich sense of the absurd; although the comedic elements jar uncomfortably with its darker themes.
Dong-chul is a devoted husband and hard-working fish merchant, even if he doesn’t always make the best financial choices. When his wife is kidnapped by sex-traffickers he resolves to use any means necessary to get her back. After all, the heavy-set Dong-chul was a gangster in his youth, and was known as ‘Angry Bull’ for a reason.
Unstoppable take its time in building up Dong-chul and his wife Ji-soo (Song Ji-hyo) as a couple deeply in love, but in danger of being wrenched apart by his weakness for a dodgy get-rich scheme. The latest is a $100,000 investment in a shipment of king crab that ends up detained after sailing into Chinese waters. You get a sense of their relationship and who they are as people, so by the time Dong-chul swings a meaty fist into a goon’s jaw it’s almost a surprise given the extent to which he’s been painted as a lovable lunk.
Once the story has been set it gets a little more generic, although comedic elements are introduced by Dong-chul’s work colleague Chun-sik Park Ji-hwan and a dodgy private eye (Kim Min-jae) as they assist, and occasionally hinder, our hero. Central villain Kim Seong-oh is also a colourful character, willing to exploit economic crises by paying off the husbands and families of the women he abducts, ensuring investigations into the disappearances is minimised (although the sums he hands out seem vast).
This is where Unstoppable misjudges the tone. The brutality of the kidnappings doesn’t work next to the larger-than-life characters and their antics. After a scene where Ji-soo is being tortured to see if Dong-chul will kill someone to save her, there’s a slapstick moment in a cop station where Chun-sik accidentally blacks up. It’s funny, but the tonal whiplash risks breaking more necks than Dong-sul.
On the plus side, Ji-soo is depicted as a resourceful woman who sticks up for her fellow captives and makes several escape attempts off her own back, even if she does have to rely on her relentless hubby in the end. Dong-chul is also often shown using violence as a last resort, Ma’s hangdog features expressing a world-weariness at odds with the laser focus of many other action heroes. The exaggerated sound design makes every punch count as they land with a wince-inducing crunch.
Unstoppable is a curious mixed bag. The elements Kim Min-ho gets right, he gets very right. There just isn’t a light enough touch with the broad humour. As an action thriller there are many great moments, and Ma Dong-seok is a blunt force machine to be reckoned with, but the backdrop of sex trafficking leaves a nasty taste in the mouth when there are such large portions of the film played for laughs.
UK Premiere screening at Vue Omni Centre Wed 26 Jun 2019