In the opening scene of the 2014 South Korean thriller No Tears for the Dead, we see a dark, brooding figure, tattoos peaking out of the sleeves of his suit, folding together an origami crane in a nightclub. After spending a few seconds charming a little girl a few tables over, he gets the text he’s been waiting for: the face of the gangster he’s been sent to kill. Everything about the scene, from the basic absurdity of the hitman doing origami up in the club to the tinkly chintziness of the soundtrack—a smooth-jazz cover of Sade’s “Smooth Operator”—feels like an homage to John Woo’s Hong Kong movies. After all, Woo made his name on bloody gun operas about soulful and conflicted hitmen. But while Woo is definitely an influence here, this is a very different kind of movie.
You can see the difference in the gunfight that follows. Woo’s gunfights, especially in the early Hong Kong movies, are florid and beautifully staged pieces of art. Whereas the first such set piece in No Tears is quick and brutal and fucked up—there’s nothing cool about it. Out hitman hero, Gon, starts off by putting a gun in a guard’s mouth, then shooting through that mouth to get a guy standing behind him. He blows off fingers. He leaves one guy alive for a few seconds, just to make the poor bastard wait silently for however many seconds it takes Gon to reload his gun and finish the job. And by the time it’s all over, that little girl from the next table is dead, falling face-down into a picturesque puddle of blood.
So this is that type of action movie: the kind that can be really hard to watch, especially if you have kids. A whole lot of people get killed in No Tears, many of them in awful ways. The movie’s idea of an admirable character is a bad guy who barks at his boss, a smarmy and fratty hedge-fund manager, that this is about duty and honor, not money, before going off to do that shithead’s bidding anyway.
Director Lee Jeong-beom is the guy behind The Man From Nowhere, the ridiculously gory and excellent Korean action flick that made a ton of money in South Korea, despite being grim and gnarly and mostly concerned with people who harvest little kids’ organs. No Tears, on the other hand, struggled at the box office, even though it has a big Korean A-list star, Jang Dong-gun, playing Gon. Maybe the problem was that Nowhere, for all its intensity, was just a straight-up badass and satisfying action movie, whereas No Tears spends a little more time dealing with the consequences.
The movie follows Gon, totally destroyed with guilt, after his bosses force him to do One Last Job: For reasons too convoluted to get into, he has to kill the mother of the little girl he accidentally murdered. You will not be surprised to learn that he decides not to kill her, and instead declares war on his own crime family. This is, after all, an action movie. But the movie spends longer than most focusing on the heaviness of grief. We see the kid’s mom trying to hold it together in some moments and completely failing in others. We see the kid’s grandmother, mentally destroyed to the point of total senility. We see Gon waking up in a pile of his own puke. And while there are plenty of melodramatic movie touches here, Gon never falls in love with the woman he’s protecting, or forces her into a situation where she has to forgive him. It’s a heavy-handedly melodramatic movie in a lot of ways, but it’s surprisingly delicate in others. And the movie goes for a long time before it gets to its second action scene.
But as much as I admire the movie’s unflinching emotional focus, those action scenes are where it gets fucking great. The Man From Nowhere had probably the greatest knife fight in movie history, and No Tears has a few scenes that rival it for sheer nastiness. In gunfights, we see pieces of meat blown off bodies and people smashing each other through plate-glass windows. The movie turns into an extended cat-and-mouse battle between Gon and the elite assassin team he used to be part of. And in one of my favorite pause-before-the-fight scenes in recent memory, he and a fellow hard-ass killer face each other and throw down their guns to have an MMA throwdown instead. The bad guy got hurt in a previous fight, so Gon asks him if that bandaged hand of his is going to be any good in a fight. The bad guy grins, sticks that bandaged hand into some nearby broken glass, and then without another word, it’s on.
Like Nowhere, this is a movie that pits a silently capable badass hero against some people so nefariously evil that it feels cartoonish. There’s a lot of fun in watching Gon figure out ways to come out ahead in situations where he’s hopelessly outgunned, like in the moment where he’s trying to find a hitman on a sidewalk, and figures it out by setting off a MacGyver’ed bomb in a nearby trashcan. He knows that the man who he’s hunting is the only one who doesn’t flinch at the explosion, so he takes off after that guy.
Meanwhile, the main villain is an entitled-dickbag finance guy, one who will call a cleaning lady a bitch to her face and who finds ways to blame a mother for her own kid getting killed. He even forces her to sing “Danny Boy,” a song she used to sing with her dead daughter, at a company function, just because he likes the fucking song. That character switches fluidly between English and Korean like it’s nothing, and he’s played by Brian Tee, the Japanese-American actor who played the Drift King in The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift. (Actually, all the characters speak surprising amounts of English; you won’t need subtitles for like half the movie. Gon, we learn, grew up in Minnesota, and I’d love to see his whole origin story as a Fargo season.)
No Tears has a tragically low Rotten Tomatoes score, and that seems to be because critics admire the action scenes while finding the melodramatic aspects to be a bit much. That’s fair, I guess. They are a bit much, but that’s the point: They lend weight and urgency to those action scenes. And anyway, when a movie’s action scenes are as good as these, it doesn’t fucking matter how good the rest of the movie is. If you care at all about this kind of stuff, you need to see these fights. Just get ready to be sad during the stretches in between them.
Tom Breihan is the senior editor at Stereogum; he’s written for Pitchfork, the Village Voice, GQ, Grantland, and the Classical. He lives in Charlottesville, Va. He is tall, and on Twitter.
Netflix Instant doesn’t have to feel like a depleted Blockbuster in 1990, where you spend half an hour browsing hopeless straight-to-video thrillers before saying “fuck it” and loading up another Archer. Streaming services can be an absolute treasure trove, particularly if you like action movies, and especially if you like foreign action movies. Every week in this space, we’ll highlight a new one. You can read previous installments over here.