You’ve probably seen a movie like Deliver Us From Evil. The second feature helmed by Hong Won-Chan (who also wrote the script), this Korean action-thriller is a revenge story about a killer with a heart of tarnished gold, risking it all for an innocent. Like many hitman movies, it’s about the ultimate tragedy of someone realizing they want to get out of a murderous lifestyle but can’t—and that their lifetime spent killing will always be reflected back upon them. Thankfully, though this is the kind of premise that Liam Neeson, Nicolas Cage or countless other actors have churned out as a paycheck-cashing B-movie, Hong’s garnishing of his realism with savvy style and a game villain bolsters the lack of novelty with quality. Deliver Us From Evil’s sweaty thrills might be derivative, but they’re far from dead on arrival.
In-nam (Hwang Jung-min), a clenched jaw of a hitman, has just finished his requisite One Last Job, and is—as nature dictates—immediately Pulled Back In. His ex-girlfriend, whom he had to leave when he first started up in this underworld gig, needs his help. Her young daughter has been kidnapped and In-nam is just enough of a softy for this situation to attract his ire. Bad news for the kidnappers, but also bad news for In-nam, whose last job attracted some ire of its own from a vengeful yakuza known as The Butcher (Lee Jung-jae).
The ensuing, cascading pursuits hop between languages and locales (Thai, Korean and English are spoken depending on who’s shaking down whom), all with a straightforward brutality that attests to Hong’s skillfully frank scripting, eventually converging in Bangkok. Here, In-nam meets Yui (Park Jeong-min), a transgender comic relief character who’s lending a hand for enough cash to afford surgery. Her over-the-top schtick is initially tired and regressive, but she also lends some much-needed emotion to the otherwise hyper-macho ensemble. She’s an imperfect character that I wish was never played for laughs (or at least had those laughs not be always partially at her expense) and was never played by the cisgender actor Park, but I was pleasantly surprised that the writing eventually veered towards depicting her detractors as scummy and her reactions as realistic rather than melodramatic.
While Park earned the most critical praise in Korea—showing that this kind of casting attracts similar awards attention outside of Hollywood—it’s Lee who’s the real standout of the cast. He’s perfectly pitched: Fun and scary, embodying and adding nuance to his prototypically garish and serpentine gangster executioner. His styling is great (massive shades, florals and ostentatious topcoats compliment neck tattoos and scars), but his restraint when teasing out The Butcher’s unhinged and unrelenting nature is better. Hong lets him be cool too: Lee kicks a metal pan underneath a soon-to-be-bled victim, hanging from the ceiling, with an engrossing and terrifying nonchalance.
It’s a slick move in service of both story and character, the combination of which Hong manages in nearly every scene. The contrast between Lee and Hwang is well-metered; if ever there was going to be another live-action Yakuza adaptation, Hong beats Takashi Miike at his own game conducting these two. He’s also got a good eye for stark, shadowy images (that I wish he used more rather than flooding Bangkok with yellow-tinged saturation) and a solid sense of action timing. Some effective uses of slow and accelerated motion—emphasizing a windshield shattering under shotgun fire or the adrenaline-fueled impact of haymakers—flash just frequently enough not to feel overbearing.
These flourishes help fights that’re sharply staged, but rarely shot with the same groundedness with which they’re choreographed. Scrappy fights done by professionals look like they could evoke the kind of overwhelming, inescapable violence of a John Wick club tour or an Oldboy hallway brawl. Instead, inopportune edits jarringly reframe things just when they’re heating up with the kind of detail that realistically shifts the narrative of combat—a gun runs out of bullets, a knife flies out of a hand—or when they threaten to make a statement about the desperation of extended melees. As often as the fights submerge you in the criminal underworld, the filmmaking choices keep pulling you back out by your collar. Of course, every once in a while, it’ll unleash something superhuman with such panache that you’ll happily let the film yank you around.
A dirty job done with reasonable skill, Deliver Us From Evil’s bleakest moments come when it gives wholly into its stereotype: Fridging women; writing its lead as overly stoic when Hwang’s much better when he’s able to emote; plotting a series of too-familiar, too-similar confrontations. But Hong’s ability with camera and tone hint at a filmmaker ready to apply himself to a more unique tale, going either deeper into noir nastiness or higher into the over-the-top action stratosphere. Stuck in the middle, his hitman thriller is a passable showcase of potential.
Director: Hong Won-Chan
Writers: Hong Won-Chan
Stars: Hwang Jung-min, Lee Jung-jae, Park Jeong-min, Park Soi, Choi Moon
Release Date: May 25, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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