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Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2002
Nonstop action thrills strictly by the book
Action movies are consistently the biggest earners in Japan and around the world, though they consistently get the least critical respect. Does that mean critics are elitist snobs? Maybe. But if, like the estimable Roger Ebert, you watch Hollywood movies for a living, the never-ending procession of quarreling cop buddies, ticking clocks and CG-enhanced explosions gets old indeed.
To keep himself sane, Ebert put together, with the help of his late colleague Gene Siskel and some of his more irreverent readers, a comic "glossary of movie terms" -- largely a compilation of action cliches. The most famous is probably "fruit cart!" This is an exclamation shouted by knowledgeable fans during car chases in exotic locales, which inevitably feature one or more vehicles plowing through a fruit cart -- and the outraged vendor shaking his fist at the departing destroyers of his livelihood.
The makers of "Seoul," a Japan-Korea co-production about a brash Japanese cop caught up in a big case in the title city, have taken aim at the same fans who filled theaters to see South Korea's "Shuri" and Japan's "Whiteout" -- action films that successfully adapted Hollywood formulas to local tastes. They have also evidently been studying Ebert's glossary and incorporating as much of it as possible into their script. Those of you who were hoping (praying) that Sept. 11 would have put paid to hackneyed action tropes had better stay away from "Seoul," which celebrates them all.
The best action films may not entirely escape from genre formulas (otherwise they wouldn't be action films), but their propulsion, ingenuity and, more rarely, their conviction make the ride so absorbing it's possible not to notice they're running on the same old rails. They at least have the illusion of freshness -- just as Disneyland manages to persuade so many visitors that Space Mountain is more than a roller coaster with pretensions. "Seoul," on the other hand, is more like a tour of a roller-coaster museum, albeit one with an attractively arrogant guide in star Tomoya Nagase.
One problem is that Japanese action filmmakers, nurtured in a society whose last major terrorist incidents were a generation ago, have long since stopped believing in their material. "Shuri," depicting a deadly battle between North and South Korean intelligence forces, was made by people who had lived all their lives under the threat of war; its violence may be over the top, but it rings true. On the other hand, "Seoul," whose director and most of its tech staff are Japanese, feels distanced from any reality beyond a screening room.
The Japanese cop here is Hayase (Nagase), a junior detective with the Metropolitan Police Department who has been sent to Seoul on a case. On his way to the airport for his flight home, he finds himself in the middle of a police chase of a pair of robbers. Hayase leaps onto the robbers' van and manages to grab one of them, while also getting a glimpse of the other. In the ensuing tussle, Hayase shoots and kills the thief he's been fighting with after they both tumble onto the street -- but not before hearing him snarl "kono yaro (you bastard)" in native Japanese.
When Hayase tells this to the skeptical Korean cops, they reluctantly agree to him extending his stay by 72 hours to help them identify the escaped crook, a tall fellow with long, dyed hair who would stand out in any crowd, but especially a Seoul crowd.
Hayase, however, gets on the wrong side of Kim Yung Chol (Choi Min Soo), the lean, mean cop leading the investigation who greeted him with a punch on the jaw for offing his prime suspect. Kim has a reason to be testy; the robbery was one in a series of big-money snatches plaguing the city and baffling its police. Also, Hayase's nailing of one of the crooks is a blow to Kim's pride. "This is Korea!" he keeps barking at Hayase; what he really means is, "This is my turf -- stay out."
But Hayase isn't content to sit in front of a computer screen all day staring at mug shots. Together with his interpreter, a sullen-but-cute female detective who speaks annoyingly flawless Japanese, he keeps elbowing his way into the investigation and getting into Kim's granite face.
Meanwhile, the gang behind the robberies -- an "Asian liberation" outfit called the Dawn of Democracy -- escalates its attacks, hacking into the police computers and announcing that they will disrupt an Asian summit scheduled for three days later in the city. They are as good as their word, brazenly kidnapping the Japanese foreign minister and holding him for ransom. But there is, Hayase feels, something strange about their MO. The ransom demand is strangely low, for one thing; what's a measly 500 million yen for a bigwig Japanese politico?
Then he remembers a Korean kid he has befriended -- and his warning about falling for fakes of the basketball variety. What if the kidnappers are hoops fans as well?
It doesn't take a brainiac to figure out the answers to this or other questions posed by the plot, as the film doesn't so much leak them as baldly blurt them. This wouldn't matter so much if the bad guys were interestingly scary or slimy, but Masahiko Nagasawa, a producer recently turned director, gives us only glimpses of their characters, while using them clumsily as pawns in an oft-played game. The long-haired crook even shows up at the scene of a crime, looking about as inconspicuous as bin Laden at a bar mitzvah. Naturally, too, Hayase delivers a chase through a crowded market, sending merchandise flying. All that's lacking is a shaking fist.
In the third act, all the gang's fiendish machinations devolve into the type of two-against-all showdown that even Hollywood is embarrassed to stage anymore. Enough to say that it involves the Korean kid, who happens to be on a city bus when . . . well, anyone who's seen more than one Joel Silver movie can fill in the blank.
The film's one saving grace is Nagase, a boy-band idol who has branched out into TV drama and is making his feature debut here. A natural who effortlessly combines macho dynamism and cheeky comic flair, he could become the Japanese George Clooney if someone writes him a "Three Kings." Another "Seoul" . . . and he's the next John Lone.