Looking for a rousing action film that is bit rougher than your standard Hollywood fare? The City of Violence could be what you're looking for. This export from South Korea doesn't offer anything new to the action genre, but what it does it does well. The story is a Western set in the present day. It brings together elements of films like Stand By Me, The Sons of Katie Elder, a taste of Kill Bill, and even a touch of The Warriors.
The film gets off to a quick start with the the brutal killing of an anonymous man. It is quickly revealed to be Wang-jae (Kil-Kang Ahn), a reformed gangster. His funeral reunites a group of childhood friends who come to pay their respects. Among them is Tae-su (Jung Doo-Hong), a Seoul-based cop who has a gut feeling that not is all as it seems. Rather than returning home following the funeral, he remains in his hometown to do a little digging into the shady details surrounding the murder. Tae-su is not the only one trying to get a handle on Wang-jae's death. Another childhood friend has designs on revenge. Seok-hwan (director Ryoo Seung-Wan), winds up teaming with old pal Tae-su as the run roughshod through gangland, drawing ever closer to their goal.
A third friend enters the mix, though he would be more than happy to let the entire incident become a part of history. Pil-ho (Lee Beum-soo) took over where Wang-jae left off with his gangster ways. The only problem is that Pil-ho has his sights set a little higher. When his criminal pursuits, resulting in the murder of Wang-jae, come to light, nothing will be able to keep Tae-su and Seok-hwan from having their revenge. The story does sag through the middle third as the circumstances come to light, but it effectively builds to the explosive final set piece.
That is pretty much as deep as the story gets, nothing particularly special. Its ability to work relies on directorial style to get the point across, along with – more importantly – the actors' performances. Fortunately, The City of Violence works in both regards. From the buddy nature of our heroes, to the flashback sequences that set up the dynamic of these friends in a better time, to the death which has torn them apart, there is style and drama to spare.
The two lead performances are quite good. In particular, I liked Jung Doo-Hong as Tae-su. He had a good deal of charisma, in a stoic way. He definitely will hold your attention and when it comes to the action he is quite capable of throwing down. Director Ryoo Seung-Wan steps in front of the camera for an effective turn as the revenge-seeking Seok-hwan. Lee Beum-soo, as our villain, is so effective in portraying this aloof, smarmy persona that you will want to choke him out yourself.
Ryoo Seung-Wan is referred to as "Korean cinema's answer to Quentin Tarantino." I am not so sure I would go that far in describing him (at least without seeing a few more of his films). However, he does have visual flair to spare with nice use of angles and camera moves. His shooting of the fight sequences balances the up close and personal and the wider scope allowing a better view of what is going on. He gives us odd angles and dramatic pans combined with a gritty look that gives a sense of immediacy. There is no doubt that he has a talented eye behind the camera.
What makes The City of Violence soar are the fight sequences. From the opening scene it is plain to see that this will be the case. That opening scene features a hand-held camera sequence shot around a corner so that all you see are the shadows on the wall. It is a fantastic sequence that sets up all of the fights to come. Later on a fight involving Tae-su switches to an overhead angle giving us an awesome view of a neck hook kick (not sure what it is called, kind of like a lariat). It is shots like that that make this look different from other action vehicles. Around the midpoint comes what may be my favorite sequence. It is a The Warriors-styled homage with Tae-su being set upon by the various gangs of the city. Each gang has a theme — breakdancers, bikers, schoolgirls, hockey players, and baseball players (in face paint and full uniform, bearing the name Warriors). It is a wild and comedic bit as this horde converges on a single man. All of this culminates in the two against the world finale which is nicely brutal and offers up a satisfying conclusion to the film.
Audio/Video. The film was shot in super 16 mm with a digital intermediary, meaning there was no conversion from film needed for the transfer, as it the color timing and finishing were done digitally to start with. It has a decidedly gritty look which is likely very close to how it was presented theatrically. The anamorphic widescreen looks good, no complaints to be had there. Audio is presented in its original Korean (5.1 Dolby Digital and DTS) and with an English dub (5.1 Dolby Digital). Both sound good. I checked the dub versus the offered subtitles and found the spoken dialogue to be a bit better than the subs, though it is always better to listen to the original audio.
Extras. Dragon Dynasty is presenting this as an "Two-Disc Ultimate Edition." It does contain a good selection of bonus material.
- Commentary. The track features director/star Ryoo Seong-wan. I sampled portions of it; it offers up some good information regarding the shooting and what he was aiming for. It is in Korean, so you will need to turn on the subtitles.
- Blooper Reel. This runs nearly three minutes and consists of your standard onset flubs.
- Trailer Gallery. Includes the original Korean trailer as well as the Dragon Dynasty promo trailer.
Disc 2: Broken down into three sections.
- The Evolution of Action. This features interview footage with Ryoo Seong-wan and plenty of footage from all of his films. He talks of the influence of Hong Kong cinema, his use of angles and varying speeds, and what he likes versus what the movie needs. (12 minutes)
- Creating Emotive Action with Action Director and Star Jung Doo-Hung. This is a good interview that shows the development of Doo-Hung's style and what he seeks to bring to each sequence that he choreographs in relation to the realism and emotion of the individual sequence. (8.5 minutes)
- The City of Violence: Development and Pre-Production. This goes into the desire to make a realistic action film. Budget concerns are discussed as is the involvement of the Seoul Action School. (10 minutes)
- The Art of War Conceptual Designs. This looks at the design of the various locations to add a little flavor to the proceedings. It includes some of the concept graphics and 3D pre visualization that were used. (6.5 minutes)
- Battle Plans: Technical Tests and Pre-Training. This looks at how they selected the shooting format and the various shooting styles and split screens that were used. (6 minutes)
- Performance Management: Interviews with the Cast of The City of Violence. Just what it says, this featurette speaks to the primary performers and the creation of the characters and how they were portrayed. (11 minutes)
- Blow by Blow: A Behind-the-Scenes Exploration of the Action Scenes from The City of Violence. From start to finish, this has footage from the training prior to production through all of the big set pieces. It was cool looking at all of the different takes. Lots of good footage. (35 minutes)
- Two Against the Rest: The Making of The City of Violence. Interviews and more footage from the film. Plenty more on the influence of Hong Kong, American, and French cinema. There is also talk of the evolution of action cinema and the desire to try something different. (47.5 minutes)
- A Walk on the Wild Side. This is an interesting featurette that ventures inside the walls of the Seoul Action School. We get a look at the training that goes on and the importance of the school to the Korean film industry and how they worked on The City of Violence. (42 minutes)
- Council of War: A Commentary on the Movie's Action Sequences with Action Director Jung Doo-Hung. Another look at the action sequences and how they designed them. (17 minutes)
- Deleted Scenes with Optional Commentary. Nothing terribly groundbreaking, none of them would have added much back to the movie. (8 minutes)
- Behind the Scenes at the Venice Film Festival. A look at the festival appearance and the panels and such they go through. There is a discussion of Kill Bill comparisons, and a few shots with signs for Korean screen quota (though I am not sure what it was in reference too). (~4 minutes)
- Designer Action: The Development of the Artwork for The City of Violence. This was a look at the design of the posters for a film. It was a challenge since it did not star a well known face. The designs all looked pretty good. (4 minutes)
Bottom line. This is not a great movie and it sags a bit through the middle, but there is no denying that this is an adrenaline-filled blast. It is a fun action film that never takes itself too seriously, yet is not a comedy. The performances are good, the action is explosive, and you will want to keep watching and see what is going to happen. This DVD releases is another winner for Dragon Dynasty which has burst on the scene as a top provider of Asian action in the US.