The Contract

starstarstarhalf
“We’re from the government. We’re here to help.”

I bumped into this one on a stand of ultra-bargain DVDs, at a truck stop on the way home with Chris from an anniversary trip to Las Vegas. The cover, understandably, piqued my interest: the film didn’t manage to make such an impression, except in intermittent bursts. Hannah (Black) is an assassin, working under the tutelage of her father, Luc (Imbault). He spurns a lucrative contract, smelling a rat: Hannah goes behind his back and takes the job, only for Dad to be proven right, when the hit goes wrong. Luc is killed, leaving Hannah and her oblivious artist boyfriend James (Oliver) on the run from Senator Harmon (Williams). He’s a CIA honcho, who has just announced his plans to run for higher office, and needs to clean up certain elements of his past – now including Hannah and James.

Some of the action here is not bad, particularly a well-staged brawl in Hannah’s apartment while James is out for food (or something). It’s an impressive bit of hand-to-hand combat, which packs a wallop and leaves the apartment in severe need of redecoration. The hotel hit which starts the ball rolling is another highlight. Unfortunately, there are just not enough of these scenes, with the bulk of the movie being Hannah and James running away, or trying to find out what’s going on. This includes a spectacularly bad bit of technological babble. James suddenly reveals hacking skills, we discover that “You can trace the email using the graphic code,” and watch as the text of the message changes into numbers. Wot, mate? Do you even computer? I know this was back in the primitive days of 1999, but still…

The plotting is, in general, equally underwhelming. It took me a while to realize Luc was supposed to be Hannah’s father – I guess I should just have looked at the British DVD cover (right, and a bit spoilery)… Quite what Harmon is trying to do is also somewhat vague: it seems to be related to a long-ago black operation, which begs the question, why did he wait so long before deciding to tidy up all these loose ends? Williams makes for a half-decent villain and Black is also solid and watchable as Hannah. That isn’t enough, however, as the bland predictability of the storyline, one we’ve seen rather too often before, drags down the positives.

It all builds to the inevitable face-off, after Hannah tracks down the only surviving person who knows the truth about Harmon, who is now working as a school janitor. I guess being a government sponsored assassin doesn’t come with a decent pension plan. The final battle is actually the most disappointing bit of action here, swapping out the close-combat fights showcased earlier, for opponents standing some distance apart and popping off rounds at each other. You’re left with a solid appreciation for why this has been consigned to the discount racks at gas-stations.

Dir: K.C. Bascombe
Star: Johanna Black, Matthew Oliver, Billy Dee Williams, Laurent Imbault

Confessions of a Slightly Neurotic Hitwoman by J.B. Lynn

Literary rating: starstar
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

I guess there is at least something logical about this, in how its heroine, Maggie Lee, becomes the assassin of the title. She takes on her first contract to pay the medical bills of her niece, left in a coma after a car accident which killed her parents and injured Maggie. That’s the kind of motivation which I can see, causing a person to take desperate steps. Unfortunately, it’s a rare island in a sea of largely implausible plotting and uninteresting characters.

First is how she comes to the attention of the mob: visiting her niece, she stumbles across a man assaulting another patient and fights him off. Turns out the patient is the head of the Delveccio crime family, who decides to hire Maggie to whack the assailant, his son-in-law. Quite why he prefers to entrust this to an insurance call-centre employee, when he clearly has far more experienced and capable personnel to hand, is never explained. Nor his decision to entrust Maggie with a minder, somewhat bent cop Patrick Mulligan, who trains her in the finer arts of killing. And I mean that sarcastically, since he has to explain that rule number one is, “Don’t get caught.” Really.

Then there’s the other cop, Paul Kowalski, who pulls Maggie over to give her a traffic ticket, which ends up with him asking her on a date. I’m not sure what purpose he serves in this store, except to set up the inevitable love triangle between him, Maggie and Patrick. Oh, and did I mention that Maggie can converse with animals, including her niece’s pet lizard? Why? Because her mother is in the loony bin, I guess: either that, or perhaps this talent was triggered by the accident. It’s such an incongruous element, in a series which is trying to remain relatively grounded in reality, it appears to have strayed in from another book entirely. I was also unimpressed with Maggie’s family, who are annoying more than endearing and whose drama occupy reams of pages, to the point that I wondered if Lynn was being paid by the word.

Once she has got through her first mission, turns out that’s far from the end of it, as Delveccio’s regular hit-man takes credit for the job, and Maggie has to get rid of him as well, in order to collect her fee. This is about the only sequence which managed to stick in my mind, bringing home effectively the point that killing someone can be difficult and unpleasant, especially when it’s not just a case of squeezing a trigger. But I’ve got to be honest: this book took twice as long to get through as most I’ve reviewed here. For when I went to bed, and it was a choice between reading some more chapters and fluffy, pillow-shaped goodness… The lure of Morpheus was generally a lot greater than the lure of Maggie.

Author: J.B. Lynn
Publisher: Avon Impulse, available through Amazon as an e-book – used copies of the paperback are… kinda pricey. As in five hundred bucks!

The Villainess

starstarstarstarhalf
“Action cinema levels up in Korea.”

This opens with a blistering seven minutes of action which starts off in first-person perspective, looking like the most deranged video game ever, as the protagonist slices, dices and shoots their way through a building to a confrontation with the final boss. After being slammed head-first into a mirror, the point of view changes and we see the attacker is a young woman, Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin). Finishing her slaughter, she calmly accepts arrest, but the Korean intelligence services recruit her, hoping to channel her skills to their own ends, after a spot of plastic surgery to ensure a fresh start. When training is completed, under Chief Kwon (Kim Seo-hyung), she’s given an apartment, unaware that the man next door, Jung Hyun-soo (Sung), is actually her handler. However, he’s not the only person with something to hide. Because Sook-hee is out to leverage her new position, and is still after long-awaited revenge on the man who killed her father.

With a storyline that’s little more than equal parts of Nikita and Kill Bill, deep-fried in a crimson vat, the only way this is going to survive is to be all about the style. Fortunately, it delivers on that aspect by the bucket. I watched that opening sequence three times before I could bring myself to proceed, and other set-pieces are almost as spectacular (and slightly less motion sickness inducing!), such as the sword-fight on speeding motorbikes. Or the final battle on a bus. Or… Yeah, let’s just say, when this is in motion, it’s utterly glorious, demented and bloody beyond belief. The problems are when it isn’t, with a horribly muddled narrative structure which also seems cribbed from Tarantino. So it’s extremely heavy on the flashbacks, and leaps around the heroine’s time-line like an amphetamine crazed mountain-goat. The payoff, when it arrives, certainly isn’t worth the effort: I’d figured it out, well before the dramatic revelation arrives on-screen.

So convoluted and murky is the story, that I found myself increasingly tuning out, and was more or less disinterested in the characters’ fates, most damningly that of Sook-hee. About the only person I cared about was her little, moon-faced daughter, whose serious expressions provoked more emotion in me than all the contortions performed by the plotting. Director Jung, like David Leitch of Atomic Blonde, has a background as a stuntman before moving into direction, and perhaps that explains why it feels as if the attention and effort here have gone into those elements. In comparison, the script is something which could well have been cobbled together on the back of a beer-mat, after an all-night video session, and then run through a shredder in an attempt to instill it with some artistic merit. Jung is certainly an action director to watch, and I’ll be very interested to see where he can possibly go from here. Is there a setting for cinematic violence above eleven?

Dir: Jung Byung-gil
Star: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun, Sung Joon, Kim Seo-hyung

Diamond Cartel


starstar
“Kazakhstan, number one exporter of potassium”

This Kazakhstani production took its time in seeping out to the West, having originally been filmed over a three-year (!) spell back in 2011-13. While slickly produced, and with some impressive sequences of action, its storyline is garbled nonsense, to the point of almost being incomprehensible, and is utterly without heart or soul. Millionaire crime-boss Musar (Assante) is negotiating the purchase of a renowned diamond from another gang, but the deal goes south, with both diamond and cash ending up in the hands of one of his assassins, Aliya (Mukhamedzhanova). She goes on the run with her former boyfriend (Frandetti), pursued by her more recent boyfriend, who is another one of Musar’s hitmen.

Which would be fine, if that’s what this was. But the film muddies the waters terribly, with secondary plots, a bevy of superfluous characters, and a convoluted flashback structure which explains how Aliya went from a casino croupier to part of Musar’s posse. In some ways, that story would probably have been more interesting that the one actually told, not least because of all the other leather-clad hitwomen he keeps hanging around his lair. Not that they appear to do much; outside of the attempted double-cross at the diamond handover, they are notable by their absence from the action elements, disappointingly.

I should instead talk about the supporting cast, which is far more laden with Western stars than you’d expect from the source. Though by “laden”, this does include people with one scene, such as Michael Madsen. And by “stars”, beyond Assante, I mean people such as Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa, Bolo Yeung, Don ‘The Dragon’ Wilson and Tommy ‘Tiny’ Lister. But the name which stands out is Oscar-winner Peter O’Toole – sadly, in his final film role before his death in December 2013. Here, bizarrely, he plays a Kazakhstani customs agent. And it’s not even O’Toole’s own voice, because his performance has been dubbed over, making for a sad end to a stellar career. Though he’s not alone in losing out in post-production, with even the lead actress, as well as her copious voice-over narration, being dubbed too.

The only aspects which pass muster are the technical ones. Mukhammed-Ali seems to have studied at the same school of flashy visuals as the other Kazakhstan director, Timur Bekmambetov, who gave us Wanted and The Arena. It’s hard to deny that the frequent car-chases and shoot-outs here are handled with a decent degree of hyperviolent flair. But this is in pursuit of nothing having any significance. The plot falls somewhere between uninteresting and incoherent, and the audience will have little or no reason to care about even the reasonably photogenic lead, whose story this is supposed to be. It comes over as little more than a poorly-constructed exercise in stunt casting, with a succession of somewhat recognizable names, passing across the screen to trivial effect. I hope they at least got a nice holiday in Kazakhstan out of it.

Dir: Salamat Mukhammed-Ali
Star: Karlygash Mukhamedzhanova, Aleksey Frandetti, Armand Assante, Cary Hiroyuki-Tagawa
a.k.a. The Whole World at Our Feet

Killer Bitch

starstarstarhalf
“Dogged by issues, I’d say.”

You could call this a foul-mouthed, borderline misogynist, zero budget piece of trash, with no coherent plot, where it seems every other word is a F-bomb or C-missile, and most of the lines are not so much spoken, as yelled. I wouldn’t argue with such an assessment, and understand perfectly why it is rated 1.4 on IMDb. And, yet… It has a relentless and manic energy which makes Crank look like a Merchant-Ivory costume drama. Put another way: unlike the overlong Rogue One, I did not fall asleep here, and it will likely stick in my mind longer than the three other, far more polished productions, which I watched the same day. Probably because, unlike this, they did not have a topless little person being tossed off a roof.

The tone is set early, in an opening scene which has British porn star Ben Dover having sex with an artificially-inflated woman, who then stabs him repeatedly. This may be some kind of tribute to Basic Instinct. Or maybe not. The actual plot involves Yvette (Rowland), owner of a model agency, who suddenly finds herself forced to take part in a bizarre game, where she has to kill five specified people. If she doesn’t, her workmates, friends and family will be murdered instead, something the tattooed, foul-mouthed thug (Marriner) working for those running the game, is more than happy to do. “Fortunately” for the film, Yvette’s model agency specializes in soft-porn, which leads to multiple scenes of photoshoots being interrupted by said thug, who kills the photographer, has sex with the model and then kills her. Subtle, it ain’t. Meanwhile, Yvette gets help from a couple of former game players (Reid and – no relation – Reid), on her journey transforming from a mouse into the title creature.

The cast are largely non-professionals, being a parade of C-list celebs, MMA fighters, former gangsters, football hooligans, glamour models etc. and the performances are about what you’d expect from that. On the plus side, almost everyone is playing little more than themselves – sometimes even explicitly themselves – so I guess can only be considered convincing enough in those roles. No-one is going to claim Rowland was overlooked for the Oscars, but she channels Eileen Daly effectively enough, and at least she stayed. In contrast, Reid #1 (Alex) walked off the film in mid-production, leading to his being replaced by Reid #2 (Robin); it probably says quite a lot about the slapdash way this is thrown together, that it doesn’t make much difference.

There is so much here that is quite clearly intended to shock and offend, but it’s an intent which robs the film of actual transgressive quality. That said, I must confess I did laugh on occasion, such as at the fight in the ice-cream van, and there were times when the relentlessly sweary dialogue took on an almost hypnotic quality, through repetition. Against this, it’s often painfully inept, with continuity gaffes so blatant even I noticed them, like the sex scene where Reid (I forget which one) has his trousers up or down, depending on the shot. But, dammit, it’s not a film I’m going to forget in a hurry, and even if that’s not necessarily a good thing here, it’s still preferable to something bland and rapidly lost in the mists of memory.

Dir: Liam Galvin
Star: Yvette Rowland, Jason Marriner, Alex Reid, Robin Reid

Gunslinger Girl

starstarstarstarhalf
“Young and heavily-armed.”

gunslingergirlIf you want something more cerebral and family friendly than Kite – if a story about underage assassins can ever be family friendly! – then Gunslinger Girl is perhaps for you. Set in Italy, a shadowy government organization, the Social Welfare Agency, has a prototype project which takes young women from hospital beds, augments their strength, speed and agility with cybernetic accessories, and unleashes them as state-sponsored special agents, with a wide-ranging license to kill. Each has a handler, to maintain and direct their conditioning and act as backup. But these trained assassins are still little girls at heart, with a fondness for teddy bears and ice-cream, as well as forming disturbing attachments to their handlers, who become their only family.

Though probably the most disturbing thing here, is that these are the forces of good: this is your tax dollars (well, tax lira) at work, fighting against radical terrorists and organized crime. Does the end justify the means, in terms of both the physical and emotional costs paid by those who take part, especially those too young to offer any kind of informed consent? Perhaps wisely, the thirteen 22-minutes episodes don’t delve too far down that rabbit-hole, preferring to concentrate more on the relationships between the five girls who are the subjects of the project. There’s something of Ghost in the Shell here, with the heroines’ awareness of their own (now, largely mechanical) nature leading them to ponder what it is to be human, and whether they can even consider themselves as qualifying any more.

The action here is perhaps less frequent than you’d expect, each episode typically having one or two brief bursts of intense activity. This doesn’t soft-pedal the violence in any way, even if it doesn’t seem to have the emotional impact on its young subjects that you feel it might; this could well be the point, and may also be a side-effect of the amnesia which is induced in them. The technical aspects are solid, in particular the music which prefers a classical tone to the (over-used, to be honest) standard large helping of J-Pop tunes, and the show has been complimented for its attention to detail, particularly in the details of the weapons it depicts.

My main issue is the lack of any real story arc or escalation. You reach the end of the 13th episode and, while not ineffective (most of the girls sit out in a meadow, watching a meteor shower and singing Beethoven’s Ode To Joy, while one lies in a hospital bed), it would hardly pass for a satisfactory conclusion. This may well result from it being an adaptation of just the first two volumes, in a series actually running to fifteen. Given this, it might have been wise to cut down the characters; rather than splitting stories and characterization relatively evenly across the five, focusing on one or two in greater depth would potentially have been more successful. That said, I still appreciated its more thoughtful and leisurely pacing, and will certainly cover the sequel series in due course.

Dir: Hiroshi Ishidori
Star (voice): Eri Sendai, Yuuka Nanri, Kanako Mitsuhashi, Ami Koshimizu

Maggie Marvel

starstarstar
“Juggling family and career can be murder.”

maggiemarvelMaggie Marvel (Beretta) is a single mom, with all the issues that implies. She has to try and juggle work with raising young daughter, Samantha (Katherine Brennan), on her own. But complicating matters enormously, is that work in this case is operating as an assassin for criminal kingpin Dutch – who also happens to be Maggie’s estranged father, who sent her away after his wife (and thus, Maggie’s mother) tried to poison him. Maggie was raised instead by Dixie Brown (Barron), who also works for Dutch as a killer. For he believes women are better at the job, and though he employs men, such as Bobby Shea (Dan Brennan) and his brothers, they are kept for non-lethal work. However, this line gets blurred as Bobby has fallen for Dixie, and his request that Maggie work with him on a bank robbery – hoping to make Dixie jealous – kicks off a series of events that threaten to destroy Maggie, her family and the entire crime organization.

It’s a good concept, and is helped enormously by Beretta, who was even more awesome in Hell Fire, even if her Australian accent requires some particularly convoluted explanations. Indeed, the story-line here in general is sometimes insanely complex, which explains why this runs 108 minutes: in some ways, I suspect less plot might well have been more successful here. Could certainly have done with less of the aspects which, particularly in the early going, occasionally make this feel like it’s a fetish tape for glove enthusiasts… Instead, writer-director-costar Brennan (who cast two of his own daughters in this, as well as it being produced by his wife Jean, keeping it a family affair) could perhaps have expanded on the single mother aspects, Maggie using her skills to deal with bitchy PTA rivals, recalcitrant teachers, etc., in a way similar to Serial Mom.

However, there are still a number of positives, not just Beretta. Most of the performances are solid, and the technical aspects are better than I was expecting – it’s often indistinguishable from a “real” movie. The comedic aspects work particularly well, in particular those surrounding the bank job. It involves both a vault which can only be opened by tap-dancing the combination, and also the impersonation of a German princess by someone who is neither a princess, nor can speak German. This kind of dry wit is endearing, and plays into the strengths of Beretta and the rest of the cast. The action is plentiful, though appears mostly constructed in the editing room rather than out of the participants’ obvious skills. It’s something of a shame the movie doesn’t build to the expected face-off between Maggie and Dixie, instead diverting into one of the subplots, this one involving an actress hired to play the part of Maggie, because… Well. I’m sure there was an explanation somewhere. Like much of the film, probably best not to sweat such details, instead just appreciating a strong lead and the quirky independence here.

Dir: Dan Brennan
Star: Selene Beretta, Dan Brennan, Katherine Barron, Dianna Brennan

Grave Mercy, by Robin LaFevers

Literary rating: starstarstarstarhalf
Kick-butt quotient: action2action2

This works rather better as historical fiction than an action novel, and is set in the late 15th century, when the province of Brittany was fighting to remain independent from France. Such high-level political machinations are far above the heads of most inhabitants, who are busy with everyday survival. At the beginning of the book, this includes the heroine, 17-year-old Ismae, who is more concerned about her upcoming, unwanted marriage – more of a sale by her father, to be honest – to a brutal husband. Rescue comes in an unexpected form, as she is whisked away to the Convent of St. Mortain, devoted to one of the pagan gods, absorbed into the Catholic faith as a saint. Mortain’s field is death, and Ismae, who has a natural immunity to poison, is trained in his dark arts. She becomes a tool used by the Mother Superior – albeit for political ends as much as religious ones.

After a couple of training missions, the main thread of the book is her presence at the court of the young Duchess of Brittany, where she is sent as the “cousin” to her adviser, Duval. Quotes used advisedly, since the general assumption is that she’s Duval’s mistress. Know I mentioned “high-level political machinations” in the previous paragraph? Cue these, in spades, as the future of Brittany hinges largely on to whom the Duchess is married. [It was only right at the end that I realized the Duchess had barely turned thirteen, rendering some of the previous events significantly more creepy] There are any number of factions, each with their own agenda, and willing to go to any lengths to make sure they’re achieved; figuring out and negotiating the maze of loyalties and deception is no easy matter.

By coincidence, I read this not long after The White Queen by Phillipa Gregory, which depicts events in a similarly chaotic period, just across the English Channel and around the same time. That didn’t have enough action to qualify here, but did get me in the appropriate Middle Ages mindset. It did share a supernatural element, with its heroine being able to affect the weather, for example. Here, Ismae’s main talent is her ability to see the mark of Mortain on those the saint has targeted for death. But this is problematic when it conflicts with the instructions given to her by the Mother Superior, and the main thrust of the heroine’s development is her transition away from an indoctrinated cult-head, as she realizes she might be being manipulated and used, almost as much as in her peasant days.

Part of this is – and you can insert a heavy sigh, complete with eye-rolling here – her blossoming feelings for Duval. It’s clear, virtually from the first time he appears, that he is the Designated Love Interest, and it’s only a matter of time before our hard-nosed assassin will inevitably be making googly eyes at him. It’s certainly the case that, once she and he arrive at the castle, the action largely grinds to a halt, being replaced by much skulking around and eavesdropping on other people’s conversations. There’s much more suspicion than assassination, outside of one incident at the banquet, where she saves the Duchess from violent death at the hands of a mime – okay, it’s more one of a strolling troupe of players, but I find the idea of a killer mime just too amusing to discard. [Also: while Ismae does wield a crossbow, it’s considerably smaller than the one pictured on the cover!]

I did like the meshing of old and new religious beliefs, and must confess, this certainly didn’t feel like a 550-page tome [one advantage of e-books is their lack of weight!], since I ripped through it in not much more than a week, which is lightning fast by my standards. But the book did suffer from incomplete subplots, such as the psycho fellow novitiate, who is also present in the Duchess’s castle, only to vanish entirely from the story without explanation. Perhaps this is something which will be explained in a future installment. Having paid 99 cents for this on special offer, I guess I can’t complain; but I likely wouldn’t be inclined to pay the $9.99 currently being demanded for the second part of the trilogy.

Author: Robin LaFevers 
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, available through Amazon, both as a printed book and an e-book.

Here’s the trailer. Yep, TIL that books nowadays have trailers…

Morgan

starstarstarstarhalf
Hannah goes Haywire.”

I watched this twice: once on an airplane flight from London, and once after I returned, and I think I preferred the second viewing. For the ending here, if not perhaps what you’d call a “twist”, does provide a piece of information about the lead character, that will change the way you watch her performance in subsequent viewings. It’s something I appreciate, and also goes a long way to explain what would otherwise potentially be flaws in the plot. Said character is Lee Weathers (Mara), a “risk-management consultant” for a tech company, who is sent to a remote outpost, literally buried in the heart of the countryside.

Its inhabitants have spent more than five years working on developing an artificial life-form; after multiple failed attempts, their current creation, Morgan (Taylor-Joy) had appeared to be doing better. Initially, crafted with talents such as accelerated growth, she (or, as Lee stresses, “it”) is now developing unexpected talents such as precognition. However, a violent streak is also making itself known, culminating in Morgan stabbing one of the researchers in the eye. This is where Weathers comes in, seeking to assess the viability of the project, as well as whether it should continue or not. And if not? Well, as the one-eyed researcher, played by Jennifer Jason Leigh, bluntly tells her, “You’re a goddamn assassin.” But Morgan’s creators won’t take that lying down; nor will Morgan her/itself.

Mara captures just the right degree of cold, passionless disinterest, and is helped out by a very solid supporting cast. This includes Leigh as well as Brian Cox, Paul Giamatti and even action heroine icon, Michelle Yeoh, albeit in a non-action role, playing the head of the project. After the opening scene, depicting the eye-stabbing from the POV of the complex’s security cameras, we already know everything is going to kick off, it’s just a matter of when. Given this, the first half could be considered too slow; we really don’t need to be introduced to everyone, because what matters is the Weathers-Morgan dynamic, perhaps with a side of the latter’s closest “relative”, Dr. Menser (Leslie, not without her own action cred, having played Ygritte in Game of Thrones – like GoT, this movie was filmed in Northern Ireland).

The arrival of Dr. Shapiro (Giamatti), the man in charge of carrying out Morgan’s psych evaluation, signals the start of this inevitable escalation of hostilities, and the pace certainly kicks up from that point forward. It’s this aspect which separates it in tone from the similarly-themed Splice, a more horror-oriented story, also about an artificial life-form gone awry. I note the stunt personnel here included Zara Phythian, a British action actress, whose star appears to be on the rise. Despite the loaded cast – it helps having Ridley Scott as a producer! – this was relatively cheap to make, at $8 million, and was somewhat unjustly overlooked on its cinema release. Even if it probably does take two viewings to appreciate it.

Dir: Luke Scott
Star: Kate Mara, Anya Taylor-Joy, Toby Jones, Rose Leslie

Assassination

starstarstarstarhalf
“Burning Japanese.”

assassinationNot, in any way, to be confused with The Assassin, despite both being distributed in the United States by Well Go, this is substantially more entertaining, being a nicely put-together period actioner that, in some ways, reminded me of Inglourious Bastards. In 1933, Korea was occupied by Japanese forces, against which a slew of liberation movements fought. As part of the rebellion, plans are afoot to assassinate Kawaguchi Mamoru, the local Japanese governor and Kang In-gook (Lee G-y), a Korean tycoon who has collaborated with the occupiers. Tasked with leading a small group to carry out the mission is Ahn Ok-yun (Jun), a lethal sniper; she’s bailed out of military prison where she has been sent for “accidentally” shooting her superior. Yeom Seok-Jin (Lee J-j) is overseeing the operation, but is actually working for the Japanese, and hires an independent hit-man (Ha), known as “Hawaiian Pistol” to sabotage it. Making things infinitely more complex, it turns out that Kang’s daughter is actually the twin sister of Ahn, the women having been separated and brought up, oblivious of each other’s existence.

There’s a very good sense of time here, with a lot of money having clearly been spent on sets, costumes, motor vehicles and everything else necessary to create Korea of the time. The action sequences are slickly put-together, without ever devolving into excess; to be honest, they’re probably a bit more plausible than the plot, where the “twin” aspect leads, in the final reel, to some developments that pass beyond incredible to uncredible. It is also more than somewhat relentless in its anti-Japanese message, bordering on the xenophobic, albeit perhaps for understandable reasons, and at 140 minutes, feels a good 20 too long. That said, there’s still an awful lot to enjoy here, in the performances and complex plot, which ends up spanning nearly 40 years from prologue to epilogue, as well as the glorious set-piece battles. The pick of these is probably the group’s first attempt as assassinating their targets, diverting them to a gas station and into a killing zone on their way out of the city, but equally as impressive is a gun-battle when a wedding devolves into a siege situation [which explains the image, above right!]

I was trying to figure out why Jun was familiar, and eventually realized she had starred in the live-action adaptation of Blood: The Last Vampire. While that was largely forgettable, she has become a huge star in her native Korea, both in film and on television. This is certainly more impressive than Blood, and she is certainly the emotional heart of the film, as well as providing some of its most memorable moments, such as when she pauses on the way to begin her mission, to take out a pair of Japanese machine-gun nests, with a grand total of four bullets. This kind of swift characterization demonstrates her character’s competence early, and the film even avoids the obvious desire for a romantic subplot. Despite the obvious issues noted above, the positives are good enough to outweigh them, and overall, this provides an enjoyable couple of hours of wartime derring-do.

Dir:
Star: Jun Ji-hyun, Lee Jung-jae, Ha Jung-woo, Lee Geung-young