On the basis of “Assassination,” director Dong-hoon Choi (whose previous film, the well-regarded heist thriller “The Thieves,” I have not seen) appears to be a very talented action director but a rather poor storyteller. This is particularly problematic for a film like “Assassination,” which overfills its bloated 140-minute runtime with tons of characters, subplots, prologues, epilogues, and a potentially rich historical backdrop. It would take a director of considerable skill to juggle all of this material effectively. Perhaps Brian DePalma, whose “The Untouchables” is a clear stylistic reference point, but even he might have trouble balancing the disparate tones and genres — Hong Kong-style action, historical drama, light-hearted popcorn flick — at play here. “Assassination” wants to be something for everyone, but its murky storytelling prevents it from being much of anything to anyone.
The plot is too needlessly complicated to recount in full. But the basic premise is promising: The leadership of the Korean government-in-exile recruits Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jeong-jae) to hire three independence fighters, living in exile in Manchuria, to assassinate two leaders of the Japanese occupation, one a military commander and the other a businessman profiting from the occupation. The star of the resistance is undoubtedly An Ok-yun, a female sniper who must be broken out of prison because she is the only independence fighter capable of firing the deadly shot. An is played with incredible strength and surprising vulnerability by Korean star Ji-hyun Jun, whose performance gives even Charlize Theron’s turn as Imperator Furiosa in “Mad Max: Fury Road” a run for her money as the most badass action hero of the year.
But, unfortunately, Jun, like all the actors, gets lost amidst the heaps of plot twists and muddled subplots that completely drag down the film. Choi’s handling of the story is so oddly half-hearted and cloudy that it is difficult to even keep track of which characters are which, much less to form any sort of connection with the material. Instead, we sit around waiting for the next setpiece. Luckily, almost like a light switch being turned on, the film comes alive with each new action sequence. Choi has clearly studied the classics because he shows off some fine action filmmaking chops — the vehicular excitement of “Indiana Jones,” the dramatic gunplay of John Woo (including an exceptional wedding shootout that’s missing only a flock of doves to bring it into full-on “The Killer” territory), a “High Noon”-meets-”Terminator” shootout, the machine-guns-and-fedoras aesthetic of “The Untouchables,” even a bit of free-wheeling bodywork of old-school Jackie Chan.
As with “Northern Limit Line,” another recent hugely successful South Korean action film, there is a strain of wounded nationalism running through Assassination. Set in the 1930s, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, Assassination obviously has every reason to cast the Japanese in the role of the bad guys — and the Japanese characters here are, without exception, very bad guys, including an anemic-looking military officer who shoots a Korean girl for bumping into him just before bragging that he has killed over 300 Koreans — but the film’s fixation with atrocities committed by the Empire and the Koreans’ collective humiliation at the hands of the Japanese begins to feel, after a certain point, like an unrequited bloodlust. Perhaps it is too much to divine the mood of a nation from two films, but the huge popularity of “Assassination” and “Northern Limit Line” — two of the top ten highest-grossing films of the year in South Korea — suggests that South Korea may be looking to the cinema to lick its old wounds and re-fight its battles.