The villains of the 2010 South Korean movie The Man From Nowhere are bad, bad people. How bad? They kidnap unwanted kids for use as drug-lab slave labor. When one passes out in the smack sweatshop, a heavy rolls his eyes and says, "Kids are so dramatic." Then he barks at the rest of 'em to get back to work.
This would be enough to make them truly detestable in just about any action-flick context. But it gets worse. They're also killing these kids and harvesting their organs. This is the sort of movie we're dealing with: We see one girl waving goodbye to her friends as their old-lady jailer tells the others that she's getting to go back to her family and that they'll get to do the same thing if they're good. The next time we see that girl, she's dead on an operating-room slab. This is a fucked up movie.
It's also a great one. The Man From Nowhere works in melodramatic action-movie broad strokes: a stoic killing-machine hero who barely ever talks, an adorable little kid who needs to be defended, a rogues' gallery of bad guys who do everything short of tying ladies to train tracks to establish their villainy. Plot-wise, it's a bald and direct bite of The Professional: A little girl's family is in over their heads with some bad people, and that family meets a horrible end. (One disbelieving cop, after finding the kid's mother: "Her heart was beating when they got her eyes. Ripped out of her head while she was still alive!") Fortunately, though, the girl is lucky enough to live in the same building as a quiet murder machine with a shady past, and he's not going to let anything bad happen to her.
The result does away with some of the ookier aspects of The Professional. The movie never sexualizes the kid, and her avenging hero isn't a hitman who trains her to be like him. He's a pawn-shop owner with a mysterious past, one that we only learn when the movie is halfway over. In fact, it's forever before we even learn his name. All we know about him is that he can absolutely beat the shit out of a gang of hardened criminals whenever he's pressed. He wears dark suits and keeps his hair in his eyes and stares motionlessly at whoever's trying to menace him, and then all of a sudden, he's a blur of motion, throat-stabbing or wrist-snapping or throwing someone through a window. He doesn't even know the girl that well—he just lets her crash on the couch when her mother's high—but he goes into Wolverine berserker-rage mode when these gibbering fuckers threaten her.
The movie's story actually gets pretty involved. There are a few different warring criminal factions, and some internal strife within the main gang, and a crew of befuddled cops trying to figure out who the pawn-shop owner is and why he's involved with all this. But the basic idea of the movie couldn't be more simple: This guy wants to get the girl back, and he's willing to ruthlessly dispatch every asshole who gets in his way. The movie gives him a rich variety of assholes, too: the paternalistic leader who can't keep his cool, the preening floppy-haired designer-dressed dandy who tries to justify the whole organ-farming-little-kids thing, the icy and dangerous killer-for-hire who might have the slightest ghost of a conscience buried somewhere in there. Every last one of these characters is an old action-movie trope, but the movie plays all of them perfectly.
It's a beautifully made movie, too. The cinematography is sharp and composed and gorgeous. One shot, of an unconscious body falling onto a driving-range net in pouring rain, deserves to have a whole Tumblr devoted to it. In another great scene, we see a whole set of people silently react to the site of a chopped-up dead body in a car before we see what they're reacting to. And in one inspired single-shot scene, the hero jumps out a window to evade a group of cops. As far as I can tell, Won Bin, the movie's star, really does the stunt, leaping smashing through glass and landing two stories down. And even better: The cameraman jumps with him, plummeting through the air and landing right behind Bin, even keeping everything relatively steady the whole time.
I don't know anything about Bin's career, but he's perfect as the pawn-shop owner. He's classically handsome, and he spends half the movie with floppy pop-star hair, but he's also got the uncanny ability to stand perfectly still but vibrate with menace at the same time. The action scenes are fast and clear and brutal. The climax is easily the best cinematic knife fight I've ever seen, a gory and unflinching throwdown that pits Bin against an entire roomful of scumbags. And every time he stabs one, he makes sure to double back and nick a major artery. It's not enough to incapacitate them; they have to die.
We also get one of those great moments where the most formidable bad guy silently puts down his gun so he and the hero can have a knife duel. There's nothing admirable about this villain, but he's not willing to believe that anyone could be better at knife-fighting than he is, and he's willing to put his life on the line to prove that to himself. If you love action movies, moments like that are what you live for.
The Man From Nowhere was South Korea's highest-grossing movie of all of 2010. To put things into perspective, the highest-grossing American movie of 2010 was Toy Story 3. That's a great movie, too, and it also deals with ideas about lost childhood innocence and powerful groups who will forcibly subjugate everyone around them to keep their power. But only one of those movies involves a nail gun used as a torture implement. There's an American remake of The Man From Nowhere in development, but I can't imagine it'll be anywhere near as hardbody as the original. Here, we have a movie full of arterial geysers and eyeballs in jars and tiny curved knives that are apparently especially useful for cheek-slicing, and that movie did summer-blockbuster numbers somewhere on earth. That's an inspiring and terrifying thing.
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.
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