New Year’s resolutions are, of course, arbitrary. That doesn’t mean the start of a new year is any worse starting point for making a change or doing something you’ve been meaning / wanting / needing to do. I told myself I would write much, much more in 2017, and writing in my long neglected blog is going to be part of that increased writing output. That said, blogging doesn’t always come so easily to me. Sometimes it’s not a matter of procrastination, sometimes I just don’t feel like I have anything to write about. So, to help ensure that I will write frequently, I’ve decided to employ a ringer. I’m going to blog about my attempt to power through my never-ending unwatched Netflix queue.
I don’t have a DVD account anymore (does that even need to be said at this point?), so this is strictly a streaming queue. Like so many other people, I’ve let the Netflix list get unwieldy, to the point that I’m sort of relieved when something I’ve been meaning to gets dropped from Netflix’s streaming service. Well, starting today, I’m setting myself a benchmark. I will get through at least 3 titles a week, and hopefully more, and will write something about each flick after completion. I’m giving myself a couple of outs and setting up a couple of rules for this as I go along.
- I’m not obligated to finish a movie. I can’t, off the top of my head, think of any movie I’ve ever seen where at some point I thought, “Wow, this is awful,” and then later thought, “Glad I stuck it out through the awful parts to get to the fantastic stuff.” It’s okay for a movie to start slow, or have a lull or dip or three, but if I get a sense at any time that what I’m watching is truly bad–in a completely uninteresting way–I reserve the right to abandon flick.
- I’m only watching movies on my list, not television series. Bates Motel, you’ll have to wait.
- I’m going in order of the current state of the list. Which, for the purposes of any smattering of readers who may start following along, is going to make this list appear quite random. And I suppose it essentially is.
- I’m strictly going to write what I feel. Meaning that some entries may be in depth, some may focus less on the movie itself than on some outside thoughts the movie planted in my head, and some may entries may be improbably brief. Given my propensity for tangents and long-windedness, if we set the wordcount over/under at 400, the safe money would definitely be on the over. But there’ll probably be some occasions where I’ll keep things to a few paragraphs and move on.
With all of that established, let’s get to it. First up…
THE MAN FROM NOWHERE
There was a time in my life when I went out of my way to watch any remotely notable Asian gunplay movie. I spent a couple of years fawning over John Woo, then I saw Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide and chased any movie that could come close to giving me the feeling it gave me upon first watch. Then I spent a few years catching up to solid flicks such as Fulltime Killer and Shiri, appreciating them for what they were while part of me thought, “Nice, but you’re no Time and Tide.
At some point, my wild affinity for Asian action flicks completely subsided. The movies still looked relatively appealing to me, but I didn’t feel so compelled to watch them. I’ve added and subtracted (and re-added) The Man From Nowhere to and from (and to) my Netflix list two or three times. I add it because it looks good, and comes highly recommended. I subtract it because it feels like one of those movies I’m never going to be in the mood to commit to viewing. The solid 2-hour runtime didn’t help. Remember when action movies seemed to get right to the point, got in and out in90-minutes or so, an hour-forty-five tops? The Terminator is 107-minutes long and it has to establish a premise involving time travel and futuristic murder-droids and shit.
“But Johnny, what about Die Hard, and Terminator 2, and other rather long action movies from the 80’s and early 90’s.”
Bah. Begone with you and your facts.
The Man From Nowhere has one of those classic action movie premises where the bad guys mess with the wrong man. I love movies with that plot, if for no other reason than they remind me of the end of the 1991 Patrick Dempsey movie Run. After Dempsey’s bumbling character lucks into killing one last villain, the cop who’s spent the whole movie one step behind being helpful all night finally catches up to Dempsey, smiles at him and says, “They sure fucked with the wrong guy.” Uh, nah, Detective, sir, that’s not an accurate assessment of the way things went down. Dempsey’s character spends the whole movie accidentally surviving and accidentally taking out the criminals chasing him. It’s a surprisingly fun flick, but his success leaves his enemies relatively blameless, tactically speaking. You can’t fault the bad guys in Run for thinking that a guy who looks and acts exactly like the guy from Can’t Buy Me Love should be an easy kill.
The bad guys in The Man From Nowhere, on the other hand, have legitimately eff’d with the wrongest of wrong men to eff with. The primary villains of the film, two psychotic brothers with promising futures in the murder/narcotics/exploitation/evildoer business, don’t have direct run-ins with the hero initially, and are dismissive of a lackey who tries to tell them about how quickly and casually our hero, Cha Tae-sik, snatched a knife out of said lackey’s hand. Okay, fair enough, no bad guy ever takes a cowardly bastard lackey’s word for it when he tries to warn them that the hero is more dangerous than he initially appears to be. But then their chief lieutenant / hitman doesn’t dispute the lackey’s story, and also goes out of his way to comment about how calm Tae-sik was when the hitman shot someone else right in front of him.
I’ve never run a criminal enterprise myself, so I don’t want to be too judgmental about it, but I like to think that if I did run one, and the highest ranking murderer under my employment even hinted at warning me about some seemingly innocuous guy I may have made into an enemy, I’d have some follow-up questions. “Did he say he was coming after us? Did he mention anything about having ‘a particular set of skills’? Should we maybe not kidnap the little kid who’s the only person to befriend him and make him feel remotely human again?”
The movie has some similarities to John Wick, which means it has some similarities to Taken, which means it has some similarities to Man on Fire, which means it has some similarities to The Professional and probably several other movies and stories that predate all of the aforementioned. Hell, viewed from a high enough altitude, it has some very basic things in common with The Searchers. Tae-sik is a warrior with some disturbing things in his past–things he’s done and had done to him–and So-mi, the abducted girl, is his lone tether to humanity.
The big difference between The Man From Nowhere and the other movies I’ve mentioned is just how much more emotionally unashamed it is, and I say this as a compliment. As I watched the film, I realized just how much I had missed the naked melodrama of so many Asian action / crime thrillers that just doesn’t come naturally to most American/”Hollywood” flicks in the same genres. Those who’ve seen Infernal Affairs and its remake The Departed should know exactly what I’m getting at. For those who haven’t, or who’ve seen the latter but not the original, here’s a video that does a great job of highlighting the very different approaches to the same scene.
Naked, unashamed manipulation and emotion. I forgot how much I enjoyed that sort of thing in my action thrillers. The Man From Nowhere is a film very much in that same vein. It comes through in the stories and characters. Unlike his American counterparts John Creasy or Bryan Mills, Tae-sik, is apt to cry or tremble with fury or shock when the moment calls for it. When he sets up a villain to die with a timed explosive, somewhat reminiscent of Creasy’s actions in Man on Fire, he doesn’t preface it with a cool one-liner and then walk off without looking at the explosion. Instead he gives the villain a rundown of exactly why the horrible things he’s doing are may be even more horrible than they already appear to be. And he is seething. I like Man on Fire well enough, but outside of Christopher Walken’s “masterpiece” mini-logue, it’s got nothing on this flick.
By the way, about that horrible stuff that the villains are up to. So-Mi is one of many children who’ve been sold to the Chinese Mafia operating in Korea as “ants”–child slave laborers. They’re forced to act as drug couriers, money couriers and meth-lab workers, and when any of them eventually collapse from the exhaustion of running around town doing drop-offs and pick-ups and, you know, working nonstop around all of those horrible meth chemicals, they’re killed and harvested for organs to be sold on the black market. Which is already fucking appalling and leaves any action flick fan eager to see these bad guys get the shit killed out of them. Then Tae-Sik briefly takes things up to the border of horror story territory while lecturing the villain; he notes that with the children’s organs being involuntarily harvested and sold to different people in different parts of the country, their souls can never rest, and they’re forced to wander without peace or respite in death. With that in mind, it almost feels like the villains merely getting shot, stabbed and/or blown up to death are getting off a bit easy.
The Man From Nowhere performs one hell of a balancing act; it’s gruesome, it’s melodramatic yet affecting, it’s thrilling despite dour and largely humorless, it’s predictable but still builds anticipation. Save for one knife-fight near the climax that features some exhilarating first-person POV camerawork, the action is unexceptional, but it’s very well-executed, and worth your time if you’re an action-thriller fan. Had I not just committed myself to this “Netflix list blitz” idea, I’d be in the mood to spend a week or two catching up on all the Asian action flicks I’ve been neglecting. Instead, the next movie will steer me into somewhat surreal world of a “cozy”-dystopian drama.
Next up: High-Rise