Dong-Kun Jang as SIn
Jung-Jae Lee as Gang Se-jong
Mi-yeon Lee as Choi Myeong-ju
David McInnis as Somchai
Chatthapong Pantanaunkul as Toto
Directed by Kyung-Taek Kwak
Somewhere in the middle of this bad Hollywood action knock-off is a strong character drama struggling to get out; it never succeeds.
An American boat off the coast of Korea has been hijacked by pirates who steal a deadly chemical weapon, which could potentially cause a rift between the U.S. and Russia. Even worse is the fact that the pirate known as Sin (Jang Dong-Gun) wants to use the weapon against South Korea itself. Navy Lieutenant Kang Se-jong (Lee Jung-Jae) has been assigned to track down Sin and stop his plans, something he does by taking his long lost sister hostage.
If there’s one thing that can be said for Korean cinema is that it usually offers something strange, different and often quite beautiful, while the country’s political climate has produced some classic political thrillers like Park Chan-Wook’s “Joint Security Area,” “The President’s Last Bang,” and the Korean war epic “Tae Guk Ki.”
With that in mind, it’s disappointing that the biggest budget movie ever made in the country looks to Hollywood for its cues, and not Oscar-worthy classics either but cheesy action flicks of the ’80s and ’90s. But what more would you expect when the movie begins with a scene that could have been taken directly from the treatment for “Under Siege 3″ as an American Navy ship is hijacked by pirates. It’s the type of loud and bloody shoot-em-up that we’ve gotten used to from Michael Bay (so that’s what he’s been up to!) with ridiculous villainsthey’re the unshaven ones with tattoosranting in bad broken English.
From there, it goes all Tom Clancy introducing the movie’s “hero”, a Navy lieutenant trying to put a stop to the pirates’ leader, as it shifts more into Bourne or Bond territory. As he travels from Russia to China, the globetrotting thriller is quite literally all over the place, informing us of the locale with standard teletype titles. Trying to keep up with the story at this point is a bit frustrating, like you’re only being given part of the information. Apparently, the original movie was longer, but it was edited down by Kwak for this “International Directors’ Cut.” The edits are sloppy, though, and things end up jumping around too much.
There is so little depth in the first half hour to 40 minutes of the movie, but then suddenly, it’s as if they got all the bad action movie cliches out of their system, and it moves into territory more familiar to Korean cinema fans. Lt. Gang recovers Sin’s long lost sister from Russia, where she’s been turned into a junkie sex slave, and he holds her hostage as a bargaining chip to get Sin to surrender the weapons. As they wait, the woman shares the story of their parents were killed when they tried to defect from North Korea in the ’50s, which we see in all its flashback glory.
This is where Kwak’s movie finally gets more into the characters and the drama leading to a touching and emotional moment where Sin and his sister are finally reunited after decades. At this point, there’s hope that things will turn around because we get to see the quality of actors Korea has to offer, but it’s strange why Kwak chooses to make Sin, the movie’s bad guy, more sympathetic.
Before you can figure it out, there’s another shootout, leading to one of the most ludicrous endings ever seen on film. Basically, it’s an over-the-top set piece with Sin setting his plans in motion to drop a cargo of radioactive waste from Chernobyl on South Korea by sheltering his ship within the eye of the largest typhoon in Korean history. Of course, Lt. Gang has to put a stop to it, and as he prepares for what may end up being a suicide mission, we’re made privy to a letter to his mother about the fact he might not survive.
Frankly, Jung-Jae Lee lacks any of the personality or charisma required to pull off the role of Gang, so it’s up to Dong-gun Jang, last seen in Chen Kaige’s “The Promise,” to save the day. Fortunately, he gets nearly as much screen time and his character ends up having far more depth and empathy. By the time the two enemies engage in a knife fight in the ship’s cargo hold while hundreds of balloons filled with biohazard float above them, you are rooting for Jang’s character. After all the shooting, explosions, a raging fire and a giant wave that would make Wolfgang Peterson proud, one of them actually does survive, but of course, that’s done off-camera so they don’t have to explain how that’s possible.
In some ways we can give director Kyung-Taek Kwak credit for making sure that every bit of his exorbitant budget is on the screen, because the production values are top notch, as good as anything coming out of Hollywood. It’s a shame that he couldn’t use that money to create a story and characters with a bit more depth than the worst Hollywood dreck.
The Bottom Line:
“Typhoon” tries so hard to model itself after Hollywood action-espionage movies, but uses some of the worst examples of it as its source material. Somewhere amidst all the violence and cliches, there’s a nice character drama about a brother and a sister trying to escape communism, but that probably won’t be of interest to action fans. On the other hand, anyone anxiously awaiting “Under Siege 3″ or “XXX3″ should be thrilled by this Korean bastard child of Michael Bay and Wolfgang Peterson at their worst.