Train To Busan was the South Korean break-out hit of 2016, an inventive, hyper-kinetic spin on familiar subject matter that no less an authority than Edgar Wright described as the “best zombie movie I’ve seen in forever”. The Merciless is positioned to be its successor: a bleak and noirish crime saga with style to burn, it’s even set in Busan, a port city on the country’s south-east coast. Ultimately, though, Byung Sung-hyun’s film is less successful at finding fresh riffs on its well-trodden material, which is heavy on granite-tough gangsters, nasty torture sequences and dramatic betrayals.
Plenty of swagger and visual brio, but too generic to stand out from the pack.
The central duo are baby-faced Hyun-soo (Yim Si-wan) and ice-cool Jae-ho (Sul Kang-gul), who meet in prison during a high-stakes face-slapping contest (you’ve got to pass the time somehow). The pair of criminals quickly bond and make plans for their post-cellblock future, but as an early flashback shows, Hyun-soo is actually an undercover cop, dropped into the pentitentiary as a way to take down the drug-trafficking ring of which Jae-ho is a part.
That’s no spoiler: it’s actually only one reveal in a seemingly endless succession of carpet-pulls. The Merciless is more slippery than a bowl of oily noodles, pinballing frenetically forward and backwards in time to show how nobody is exactly who they appear to be. It’s smart stuff, and makes it near-impossible to guess where the story is going. But with a largely generic cast of characters, it also makes for a packed and exhausting two hours, lacking the operatic simplicity of the similarly themed Infernal Affairs.
If the script is overcooked, there’s plenty of compensation in the form of Byung’s high-energy direction, which is all the more impressive given this is his first action film (his 2012 film Whatcha’ Wearin’? was a romcom about phone sex). Here he goes to town with all the enthusiasm of Martin Scorsese, were Martin Scorsese to be locked in a cupboard for a year, then released and given a Panaflex. There are stunning shots (a single-take fight sequence during which the camera tilts 90 degrees and flies through the air with somebody’s body), freeze-frames, wipes, apple-eating montages and a bizarre but wonderful fish-based music video starring a dapper crime boss. Even if the substance doesn’t always match the style, there’s plenty to relish.
The shame is that there’s enough good stuff here to make you yearn for the classic it could have been. Characters snarl enjoyably pulpy dialogue such as, “He’s like a caged Jesus Christ,” or, “He’s the whale of all criminals.” There are memorably awful bits of brutality; if you didn’t fancy the idea of having boiling oil poured on you before, this definitely won’t change your mind. And there’s something fascinating about its dark worldview: the title applies as much to the cops as to the robbers.
But ultimately it fails to keep the tension ratcheted up, or to satisfyingly develop the relationship between the two protagonists — is it a bromance, or something more, as one character suggests? The filmmakers could have done with being a little more merciless at the writing stage.