Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand: How to Shoot an Action Movie (And How Governor Schwarzenegger Got His Film Career Back)

Here at Say a Prayer for the Octopus, we have devoted ourselves to following the fortunes of talented Korean filmmakers as they misguidedly pursue their dreams of English-language crossover success.  So far, we’ve seen Hong Sang-soo’s In Another Country, a triptych in which Isabelle Huppert plays three different Frenchwomen who travel to Korea and use English as a lingua franca.  Then we watched Park Chan-wook’s Stoker, which depicts the depravity of a troubled family of New England WASPS (we really liked this movie).  And today we have just seen Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand, in which Arnold Schwarzenegger, in his first post-gubernatorial leading role, plays a small-town border sheriff who leads a rag-tag band of locals in trying to stop a Sinaloa drug lord who has escaped from federal custody from fleeing back into Mexico.

Now, of the Korean directors who are currently attempting to cross-over into English-language cinema (including Hong, Park, and Bong Joon-ho, who’s English-language Snowpiercer has not yet been released), Kim is probably the most “mainstream,” although I hasten to clarify that (A) mainstream in Korea is better than mainstream in America and (B), I mean mainstream more in the sense of David Fincher or, hell, Steven Spielberg, rather than Michael Bay.  Kim makes crowd-pleasing blockbusters with style and limitless imagination; his genre-hopping career has included the direction of A Tale of Two Sisters (horror), Bittersweet Life (gangster), The Good, the Bad, The Weird (spaghetti western / period piece / war movie / all manner of things), and I Saw the Devil, ostensibly a “chase film” that features some of the most relentless and disturbingly graphic violence that I’ve ever seen.

It’s interesting to compare I Saw the Devil with The Last Stand, as they both feature the same basic premise: a criminal is trying to evade the authorities and mayhem ensues.  In I Saw the Devil, a serial rapist/murderer kills a woman who happens to the be the fiancée of a special agent, who promptly sets about chasing the rapist, capturing him, torturing him, and then releasing him so that he’ll have the pleasure of capturing him and torturing him again; and this repeats itself several times, and the special agent has no regard for any notion of human rights (and to be fair, nobody in law enforcement respects human rights in Korean movies) or for the increasing danger his chases pose to the public.  In fact, the depredations of this special agent are so horrific it becomes increasingly difficult to see him as being in any way superior to the rapist/murderer he’s pursuing.  I Saw the Devil is a deeply morally troubling movie.  The Last Stand, by contrast, dispenses with moral ambiguity to present us with a rousing series of firefights and car chases negotiated between cartoonishly evil thugs and good-hearted, loveably eccentric small-town Americans.

I Saw the Devil.
I’m tempted to take this opportunity to suggest that maybe Kim didn’t think Americans could “handle” the kind of moral complexity of a film like I Saw the Devil; after all, there’s been talk of an American adaptation of Park Chan-wook’s Oldboy for years now, but anyone who’s seen that movie knows—and I won’t divulge spoilers here—but they know that there are key plot elements of that film that just won’t sell in the U.S.  But in Kim’s defense, I think he was just trying to make a different kind of movie with The Last Stand, the tone of which places it firmly within the genre traditions that I Saw the Devil was designed to transcend.  The Last Stand is a western, and Kim makes playful use of genre tropes that date back to High Noon (not to mention a bunch of other American movies that I haven’t seen).  Having made a spaghetti western with The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Kim has made a western-western (to coin a phrase) with The Last Stand.

I don’t have all that much to say about Kim’s American outing; I haven’t seen many action movies, I don’t know what the recent crop looks like.  But I do want to point out that Kim—along with cinematographer Kim Ji-yong and editor Steven Kemper—knows how to put an action sequence together.  Let me say that I know enough about American action movies to know that they’ve lately suffered “death by a thousand cuts,” their combat/chase sequences a shaky-cam mess so riddled with cuts that they become almost totally incoherent.  What’s the point of putting together a cool-looking action sequence if you can’t even see what’s going on?  This is a great advantage (one of many) that Kim and his fellow Korean filmmakers (Bong and Park especially come to mind) have over their American counter-parts: they can shoot an action sequence with elegant composition and a minimum of cuts, so that viewers can see it as clearly as possible.  One shouldn’t even have to say of movies that viewers should be able to “see them clearly,” but Paul Greengrass and Michael Bay have so thoroughly chopped things to pieces that this principle needs to be restated.  And so, although I would prefer these Korean directors to leave their Hollywood dreams behind and go back to making consistently excellent Korean movies, it certainly wouldn’t hurt American action movies if artists like Kim Ji-woon continued to shoot them.


  1. If you want a recent American movie with elegantly composed action sequences, you would get a surprising amount of mileage from Real Steel; yes, the movie about boxing robots.

    It's not a good movie by any stretch of the imagination (the acting and writing are horrid), but the actual combat scenes are brilliantly shot such that not only can you tell what's going on, but you can actually get emotionally invested in bouts between boxing robots; no easy trick, to my mind.

  2. I have nothing but respect for boxing robots! I will look into it.