The Killer is a shallow retread of already shallow ground and sunk by the blank slate of a “hero” at its core.
As he did in The Swordsman, Jang Hyuk plays a violent, stoic killer in Choi Jae-hoon’s new film, The Killer, and the similarities don’t end there. Where Choi’s previous film found a semi-retired swordsman forced out of retirement after his daughter’s kidnapping, The Killer’s killer is called back to the field when the 17-year-old-girl he’s babysitting is taken. And what follows is, like in The Swordsman, a series of violent encounters in which Jang Hyuk dispatches a bunch of dudes with relative ease and no remorse. Generously, Choi’s retreading of familiar ground with Jang in tow could be made out to be an auteurist obsession, the beginning of a career that could return to these same themes with the same star over and over in slight variations. But The Killer, like its predecessor, doesn’t warrant generosity. It’s a shallow retread of already shallow ground, a contemporary setting update to a historical version of the same bad movie.
Even calling Jang’s Bang Ui-Gang stoic is overselling his character. He is a blank slate without personality and with only the most meager, sentimental backstory to provide motivation. He exists purely as a means to an end of slick, effortless gun fights that traffic in a bland coolness. None of his adversaries or his few allies have much going for them either, providing Ui-Gang with either bodies to be destroyed or tools to aid him in doing so. In this regard, and a few others, The Killer is a step down from The Swordsman. Jang Hyuk’s protagonist in that film was equally devoid, but the historical setting and political trappings of its narrative gave it more intrigue to hold onto than the unexceptional devious plots uncovered in The Killer. Besides, even if the other characters in that previous film were underwritten, it at least found a great villain in Joe Taslim’s performance. The Killer has no such luck, populated as it is with cardboard cutout villains.
The Killer’s action, however, is an improvement for Choi, at least in some places. Many of the fight scenes are still overedited and confusing, and the ostentatious long takes still have the quality of a video game cutscene. But occasionally the edit calms down and a duel — usually the one-on-one fights are the good ones — has some room to breathe. Those few exciting battles are also the ones that seem hard on the film’s hero. Too often Bang’s assault on hallways full of bad guys is portrayed as effortless, like our ostensible hero is bored to be easily mowing down waves of enemies. It’s a shame that his boredom proves infectious, as the psychotic “coolness” of these scenes consistently proves dull and never becomes compelling. And that is The Killer’s problem in miniature. With little interest in interrogating its hero’s morality, the film makes Bang an unambiguous rooting interest for the audience, but with so little to his character outside of the violence, anyone trying to engage with the movie will have little to actually root for beyond obviously predetermined ends.
Originally published as part of Fantasia Fest 2022 — Dispatch 2.