Deliver Us from Evil fails in both its attempts at severe drama and action spectacle, proving an equal opportunity offender in the process.
If the title of Hong Won-chan’s nihilistic slog of a crime thriller Deliver Us from Evil points to anything, it’s that the film’s milieu is made up almost entirely of deplorable men in a contained ecosystem of violence. Most of them — some might argue all of them — are well beyond any sort of deliverance or redemption, but the film certainly tries to grant its hero just that through a gamut of rote devices, denying the perhaps more interesting anti-romantic streak implied by its fatalistic streak. Of note here is the reunion of A New World stars Hwang Jung-min and Lee Jung-jae who do their best to bring some spark of life to the film, but it’s rarely enough in a movie with so few thematic ideas and mostly bad formal ones. Hwang plays In-nam, a Korean hitman who just wants out of the game but finds his past hard to escape. That past rears its ugly head in the film’s two convergent threads. When an ex-girlfriend turns up dead in Thailand after her daughter — three guesses on daddy’s identity — is kidnapped, Hwang travels to Thailand to rescue the kid from black market organ traders, a twist so characteristically grim it plays as obvious. Meanwhile, In-nam is pursued by Ray, the sworn blood brother of a Yakuza member In-nam killed, embodied by Lee Jung-jae going wonderfully over-the-top like a relentless video game villain. Ray’s quest for vengeance is generally more engaging than In-nam’s redemption arc, in part due to Lee’s commitment, but mostly because the deployment of a dead woman and an endangered child as fuel for a hitman’s pathos is a rote, misogynistic device that Hong never turns into anything more than simplistic sentimentality so that an audience might tear up a little in between bouts of cheering for ultraviolence.
It would be remiss in discussing the film’s dramatic failures not to remark upon the film’s trans woman character, Yui, who acts as In-nam’s guide in Thailand. She is treated, as most other people in the film are, like shit, though of course what’s thrown at her is a result of identity rather than of action. While it’s easy to imagine someone mounting a defense of the film’s barrage of transphobia as a reflection of the attitudes of its milieu — a fair but honestly tired point — Hong obviously has nothing to say about transgender experience outside of “gee, I imagine it’s difficult to be trans” and centers Yui’s entire motivation on her desire for gender affirmation surgery. She is, like In-nam’s child, a conduit for simple sympathy and redemption for our hero. Of course, she is played by cisgender man Park Jeong-min in an embarrassingly fussy, tic-laden performance and, in case you thought famous men being awarded for their piss-poor portrayals of trans women was a distinctly American phenomenon, Park won the Blue Dragon for Supporting Actor for his work. The most credit I can muster for this film’s representation is that it does treat transgender and cisgender women equally: as objects to help you perceive the man who just shot 20 guys in the brain as a good person.
So, hey, no surprise that Deliver Us from Evil is no great shakes in its attempts at severe drama, but it’s not much as an action film, either. In-nam and Ray dispatch plenty of goons in plenty of ways so that you’ll never have to wait too long to see someone get fucked up if that’s what you’re here for, but the usual problems — arrhythmic editing, obscurant camera angles — mar most of the close-quarters fight sequences. Plus, when fight scenes are so obviously going for hard-hitting realism, an ill-advised overuse of perfunctory speed-ramping (a technique that maybe only Zack Snyder should be allowed to use) renders most of it phony. That’s not to say there’s no good action — there’s a pretty exciting car chase and a solid fight in a stairwell that will likely pop up out of context on YouTube — but even the best stuff here feels derivative, like a pale imitation of a handful of superior action movies from the past decade.