City of Violence (2006) Movie Review

“City of Violence” is the latest film from Korean action director Ryoo Seung-wan, previously responsible for the martial arts mayhem of “Arahan” and the bruising boxing drama “Crying Fist”. Although “Violence” sees Ryoo sticking to his usual themes of former friends facing each other in testosterone-fuelled duels to the death, the film does represent a return to his earlier style, being a stripped down, gritty urban thriller without too much in the way of complications.

The plot begins with detective Jeong Tae-su (Jeong Du-hong) returning to his hometown to attend the funeral of his friend Wang-jae (Ahn Gil-gang, recently in the excellent “Running Wild”), where he meets up with the other members of his old high school gang. Some things remain the same, with his friend Ryoo Seok-hwan (played by the multi-talented director himself) still a top brawler, though Jang Pil-ho (Lee Beom-su), previously the weakest and most useless member of the group, has now become an ambitious mobster who may have been involved in Wang-jae’s death. Jeong and Ryoo’s investigations uncover the truth, and inevitably lead them to a bloody showdown with not only Jang, but also his army of sword-fodder henchmen.

Although its plot is simplistic and does suffer from several glaring narrative lapses, “City of Violence” benefits from a strong set of characters, whose believable relationships enrich the familiar themes and add a welcome layer of emotional depth. Ryoo does perhaps overplay his hand a little in this respect, with a few too many flashback scenes and redundant subplots during the opening stages of the film, though these do help to lift the proceedings from the usual action fare.

Lee Beom-su, known primarily for comic roles, makes for a great villain, and does a good job of transforming his character from incompetent fool to vicious, though insecure crime boss, at the same time managing to retain a spark of humanity throughout. Similarly, the relationship between the two heroes is an interesting, wary one, and never degenerates too far into buddy film cliché, and actually takes a while to fully develop.

Of course, the film’s raison d’être is very much its action scenes, and Ryoo certainly delivers plenty of thrills, with a good number of set pieces packed into the admirably short running time. Although most of these scenes do feature Jeong and Ryoo taking on seemingly endless hordes of assailants, and at times appear to be specifically designed around letting the stars show off their skills, they do have a grounded feel, with the film being based around actual martial arts and street brawling rather than any kind of high flying nonsense or special effects. Most of the battles, especially the epic climatic scenes in which the tenacious protagonists use swords to literally slice their way through Jang’s henchmen to get to their boss, are bloody, brutal affairs, and take place in alleyways or restaurants, which again help to give the film a believable air of violent urban reality.

Although the film is stylishly directed, Ryoo thankfully keeps things relatively low key, and shoots the action with a minimalist yet strangely epic feel, something which comes to the fore in the latter stages of the movie, all of it fittingly accompanied by Morricone style Spaghetti Western music. Star and action director Jeong’s choreography is excellent, without too much in the way of flashy techniques or sudden editing, allowing the fight scenes to play out naturally. Things do get a little wacky at times, including one scene which rather strangely features break dancing fighters in an almost comic book fashion, though these never get out of hand and work well to add a sense of fun and creativity to “City of Violence”.

Given the fact that “Crying Fist” managed to mix in-depth character development with an engaging plot and tough fight scenes, it’s easy to see why the more basic, though no less entertaining “City of Violence” may come as a bit of a surprise to some viewers, and perhaps even as a disappointment. However, this is largely due to the fact that it is simply a different type of film, being a short, sharp burst of violent action, which makes up with kinetic physical poetry what it might lack in believable human drama.

Seung-wan Ryoo (director) / Jeong-min Kim, Won-jae Lee, Seung-wan Ryoo (screenplay)
CAST: Kil-Kang Ahn …. Wang-jae
Seok-yong Jeong …. Dong-hwan
Doo-hong Jung …. Tae-su
Beom-su Lee …. Pil-ho
Seung-wan Ryoo …. Seok-hwan

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