“This isn’t the ‘80s anymore, man." This random bit of dialogue from the South Korean action melodrama The Man From Nowhere struck an unintentional chord, though it's arguably a decade off the mark. Writer-director Lee Jeong-Beom's sophomore effort is clearly the work of a man raised on ‘80s and ‘90s action thrillers. You know the ones: glossy and aggressive in their depiction of firepower, blood and vice. Seen in a forgiving light, it's a perfectly acceptable way to scratch your action-movie itch, but anyone feeling such a tingle will also have to concede that The Man From Nowhere never met a cliché it didn't embrace.
The movie begins with a two-month police stakeout ending badly during a drug deal, and bystander Hyo-jeong (Hyo-seo Kim) absconding with a parcel of heroin. Not surprisingly, Hyo-jeong is a bit of a mess, certainly not the stable mother one would hope for her precocious but good-natured young daughter So-mi (Kim Sae-Ron). It's no wonder, then, that So-mi regularly invites herself into the neighboring apartment of Cha Tae-Shik (Won Bin of Mother), a mysterious man of few words who can't quite resist So-mi's needy open heart, despite his obvious social discomfort. Hyo-jeong's reckless theft brings down the full weight of a drug-trafficking operation, members of which kidnap both her and So-mi. But the criminals don't know who they're messing with: Tae-Shik is an ex-Special Forces operative primed to rain down hellfire on anyone who crosses the women in his life. There's a reason that he's a tragically damaged loner, after all (cue flashback!).
International audiences will immediately leap to films like Léon (The Professional) and Man on Fire as points of reference for the "terse hero protects the little girl that thawed his heart" plot. The dynamic of an innocent relationship between a man and a child is a textbook way to take a hero who is completely bad-ass, thank you very much, and reveal his softer side: if action movies have taught us anything, it's that ruthless killing machines are people, too, and able to learn from emotionally needy children. The gooier the melodrama, the further the film can go for shock value: it's the not-so-delicate balance found in so many Asian actioners. Veteran viewers won't blink at the stark contrast, while casual ones will likely blanch at a nasty, grisly gangland film that leavens its splashy ultra-violence with dollops of cutesy comedy and dewy-eyed motivation. Back home, mind you, the picture went over like gangbusters, ranking as Korea's highest grossing movie of 2010.
Looks matter in such films, and Lee certainly earns some visual style points. One spectacular trick shot finds Tae-shik jumping through a second-story window and tumbling onto the concrete below, and a climactic knife fight juiced up with POV shots has already earned an enthusiastic response from cult-action fans. Kim's guileless, resonant performance helps the movie to work better than it should, and Won Bin is rock solid despite his stock character (and next to his even stronger work in Mother, Bin's performance here proves his transformative skill). Obviously The Man From Nowhere is built to serve a specific audience, one that expects nothing less than a subplot involving the organ trade and child exploitation (and won't think twice about the plot's willingness to exploit a child). Ultimately, Lee's too-familiar film isn't so much distinctive as competent, but there's certainly enough here to satisfy action junkies.
Though shadow detail is occasionally tested, The Man From Nowhere gets an otherwise tack-sharp transfer on Blu-ray. Bold colors rule the day, with the image retaining a film-like look while never sacrificing clarity. The audio comes in twin lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 tracks, one in Korean and one in English; they're more than up to the task of keeping up with the action and prioritizing dialogue amid a complex soundscape. (That said, the Korean soundtrack, with subtitles, is undoubtably preferable.)
Bonus features include a “Teaser” (1:06, SD), “Full Trailer” (1:42, SD), pointless “Highlights” reel (5:11, SD), and a strong “Making Of” (17:23, SD) comprised mostly of onset footage (including fight rehearsal and the staging of many of the fight sequences) and interview clips of Won Bin, Kim Sae-Ron, director Lee Jeong-Beom and others. Action junkies can't go too wrong here, especially in the state-of-the-art Blu edition.
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