Director Jung Byung-gil made some waves amongst action aficionados some years back with cult actioner The Villainess (2017). The film worked as a perfect showcase of his visual style, containing numerous action scenes with his now trademark jaw dropping camera work. Clearly Hollywood took note, as one such action scene was almost copied wholesale for Chad Stahelski’s John Wick Chapter 3 – Parabellum (2019).
As enjoyable as The Villainess was, personally I was more impressed by Byung-gil’s previous film, Confession of Murder (2012) which I found to have a better command of its characters and plot. The Villainess was somewhat lacking in these areas, with Byung-gil clearly more invested in the action scenes. Still, it did feature a fully committed performance from Kim Ok-vin who was able to wring a lot of emotion out of her character all the whilst kicking countless asses.
Amazingly, it has been 5 years since The Villainess. In that time Byung-gil has been fairly quiet. He has been developing comic book adaptation Afterburn, which would mark his Hollywood debut as well as uniting him with action star Gerard Butler. However, not much has been heard of the film since its initial announcement and it is unclear if this is still going ahead.
With that Byung-gil has gone ahead and directed another wild ride, the recently released Carter. From the initial trailers, it appeared that this would be more in line with The Villainess than Confession of Murder, with a much stronger focus on action than story. This couldn’t be more true. Anyone who thought The Villainess was light on plot will be equally disappointed with Carter, with there being even less in the way of character or story development.
Byung-gil throws the audience straight into proceedings, with us being as much in the dark as its lead character. We are only briefly aware of what is happening through news reports playing in the background, and it isn’t until roughly the 30 minute mark where the film slows down slightly for some uninteresting exposition.
Playing like a mixture of Jason Bourne (2016) and 28 Days Later (2002), Carter is set in the near future where a virus has already decimated North Korea and America. From this we are quickly introduced to Carter (Joo Won) who awakes in a hotel room covered in blood with no memory. Disorientated, the hotel room door is quickly broken down where Carter is met by a group of CIA agents who begin to question him about the whereabouts of Doctor Jung Byung-ho (Jung Jae-young).
Carter has no clue what they are talking about. As the agents continue to question him Carter hears a voice in his ear informing him of his name and that in order for him to survive he must follow her orders. She then proceeds to tell him to jump out a window, with him finding himself in a sauna surrounded by countless thugs. While Carter has lost his memories, his fighting abilities quickly kick in, with him taking out everyone in the room.
The voice in his ear begins to tell Carter that she works for North Korea’s labour party who are working with South Korea to come up with a cure for the virus. Dr. Byung-ho had successfully cured his own daughter Ha-na (Kim Bo-min) and is working on a cure based on his daughter’s antibodies. Unfortunately Ha-na has gone missing on her way to a lab in North Korea, with the C.I.A. expected to be behind her kidnapping. The voice in Carter’s ear wants him to find and rescue Ha-na in order to create the cure. Giving him further incentive, Carter is informed that he also has a daughter who is infected with the virus and that she will die if she isn’t given the cure. If this wasn’t enough he has the pleasure of a bomb being implanted in his mouth that will detonate if he doesn’t comply. Now Carter must race against the clock to rescue Ha-na, save his daughter and fight what seems like the entire C.I.A.
Byung-gil, who also wrote the screenplay, clearly sees the plot as a catalyst to get his character into the next action scene, something Carter has an abundance of. I would make a guess that there’s 80% action to 20% drama in the film’s 135 minute running time. This is both the it’s major selling point and it’s biggest failing.
For action fans the amount of action may seem like a blessing, but there are a number of drawbacks that hinder Carter from being a truly excellent action movie. One of these is the shooting style Byung-gil utilizes. Fans of his previous work will know that he favors using extremely long takes during his action scenes, using editing techniques to make them appear as if they were done in the one. In The Villainess these added to the overall energy of the film and made it stand out from similar action fare.
The issue here is that he has taken that style of shooting and turned it up to 11. Byung-gil has made the decision to shoot the entire film this way, with the events apparently happening in real time in one long continuous take. Obviously, like his previous films he employs a number of editing techniques to cover up the joins, many of which take place during pans and zooms.
I do admire Byung-gil’s adherence to this style of filmmaking but as interesting as it initially appears, it eventually becomes exhausting, harming the otherwise well choreographed action. In fact, as impressive as the camera work is, it makes proceedings feel like a 2 hour cut scene from a video game rather than a movie.
Further harming the film is some extremely poor CGI. Sometimes the CGI is used to cover the edits, which becomes extremely apparent, where other times it is to include the likes of explosions and car crashes which look terrible and only manage to take you out of the action.
Speaking of the action, as mentioned, there is no shortage of it. For the most part it is well done and suitably violent. There are countless shootings, slashings and stabbings as Carter tries to complete his mission. The hand to hand fights are excitingly staged, with the opening sauna set fight scene being a perfect taster of what’s to come. From the get go you will realize that realism isn’t Byung-gil’s aim, with Joo Won taking on a small army all within the first ten minutes. In fact, Carter could give the Fast and the Furious movies a run for their money in terms of being over the top.
Being over the top can make or break an action movie. Like the Fast and the Furious series, the action is robbed of any threat due to how ridiculous it becomes. The punishment that Joo Won is put through during the film would kill a normal human, which he just shrugs off to move onto the next action scene. As he engages in what seems like his tenth fight scene, Carter becomes less believable than any superhero movie. This is fine if you’re just looking for spectacle, but it robs the film of any emotional connection you could have with the character. As enjoyable as the action of Carter is, it is ultimately soulless.
Regarding Joo Won, he gives an especially energetic performance, giving one of the most action heavy role of his career. In fact, it’s probably the most action heavy role of any actor this year. If he’s not running, he’s shooting, before going on to more running and then fighting. This doesn’t exactly give him much of a chance to show off his acting ability other than his sheer bewilderment of his predicament, but he does what he can with the material.
I was disappointed how little Jung Jae-young was used in the film, with him having very little in the way of screen time, with his character only really getting involved in the final third. Even then, he doesn’t really get involved in the action which was a shame considering how well director Byung-gil utilized him years before in Confession of Murder. Hopefully he will have more to do in the upcoming Noryung, the third entry in director Kim Han-min’s trilogy of the famous naval battles led by Yi Sun-sin.
Carter is given something of an international flavor with the appearance of American actors Mike Colter and Camilla Belle. Essentially, their characters are only included for expository purposes, with Colter appearing in just one scene. Belle is stretched to two, with her second scene managing to be quite memorable, with Byung-gil focusing the camera on Belle so it appears as if she is talking to the audience. Not only did this help hold my attention, it gave me strong echoes of director Jonathan Demme, who would employ a similar tactic in many of his movies. Now I don’t know if Demme would be an inspiration for Byung-gil, but I did appreciate how the scene was handled.
I was quite looking forward to Carter, as the action in the trailers looked fantastic. I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy the film as there was just too much going on to be bored. Even so, I still came away disappointed as while Byung-gil has a fair handle on the action, his story telling seems to be taking a back seat. Rather than each of his films improving on the last, he appears to be going backwards. Personally I still don’t think he has delivered on the initial promise he showed with Confession of Murder.
Saying this, I would still recommend Carter to action lovers, as there is definitely some magic here. I have noted some reviews online have loved it, so perhaps I am in the minority, just that I was expecting more.
Plot: 2.5/5 Acting: 3/5 Action: 3.5/5 Overall: 3/5