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A canny cross between Wag the Dog and The Expendables, Kim Byung-woo’s second mainstream outing is a relentless roller coaster ride about the botched attempt of a CIA-employed South Korean mercenary to apprehend the defecting North Korean leader and keep him alive. Unfolding mostly within a warren of underground bunkers, Take Point combines a clever plot, cracking action choreography and surprisingly astute analysis of the power games shaping politics on the Korean peninsula today.
A full-fledged blockbuster, the film is a giant leap forward for a director who made two indie features (Anamorphic, Written) before crossing over to mainstream territory in 2013 with The Terror Live. Reuniting with Terror star Ha Jung-woo (The Handmaiden), an A-lister who also serves as the pic’s producer, the 38-year-old helmer has packed Take Point with effects-laden set pieces, multiple political conspiracies and an international outlook. The latter is shaped not only by the movie’s premise, but also by sizable chunks of English-language dialogue and a multinational cast that includes Jennifer Ehle, Kevin Durand and Malik Yoba.
Director-screenwriter Kim’s career is shaped by films about individuals trying to break out of their role as someone else’s puppet — a nameless character rebelling against the script deciding his fate in the meta-textual Written, or a journalist being manipulated by his interviewee in The Terror Live — and Take Point pushes this to extremes. Here, characters representing South and North Korea are caught in the crossfire between the U.S. and China, and can only survive by turning against their puppetmasters rather than each other.
Opening in South Korea on Dec. 26, the film ranked second after Aquaman during its first weekend, with admissions topping 1 million. It has done less well on limited release in the U.S., which is a shame: Kim’s screenplay is certainly ripe for a remake. Having already opened in Singapore and Taiwan, Take Point will unspool next in Hong Kong and Vietnam.
Serving as a prologue of sorts, an introductory collage of news clips and clandestine phone calls ease viewers into a fictional, fantastical future. The year is 2024, and the U.S. is in chaos. After a seemingly fruitful summit meeting with his North Korean counterpart, President McGregor (Robert Curtis Brown of The Handmaid’s Tale) lifts sanctions against Pyongyang. China quickly helps North Korea reboot its industries, which then leads to the two countries flooding international markets with goods and sending the American economy into a tailspin. The two Asian countries also rekindle their hawkish rhetoric on Washington, plunging the U.S. into further crisis.
To boost his faltering re-election campaign, McGregor orders the CIA to bring about regime change in Pyongyang. This is a mission cynical spymaster MacKenzie (Ehle) entrusts to a private black-ops unit led by a South Korean man who goes by the nom de guerre of Ahab (Ha Jung-woo). An ex-paratrooper who lost his leg and his rising army career in a jump drill gone wrong, Ahab is a hard-boiled soldier of fortune. He sneers at a starry-eyed recruit’s moral ideals and announces he just wants to finish the job, get his fee and go to Philadelphia to witness the birth of his first child.
Ahab sets up the op in a well-appointed chamber in an underground complex straddling the two Koreas, where officials from both sides would conduct clandestine meetings. His heavily armed unit is supposed to just kick through a few gates and grates, grab a North Korean general, cross the border and head home. At least that’s how MacKenzie describes the mission which, unsurprisingly, turns out to be far from a cakewalk. Ahab’s cocky demeanor begins to disintegrate when he learns that the CIA has staged a bombing on Seoul, thus giving the U.S. a pretext to attack Pyongyang. His worries peak as he is told his prey is not just a military official, but North Korea’s supreme leader “King” (Sun Wook-hyun) in person.
All this is revealed in an action-free, conversation-heavy 20-minute opening act, unfolding within a room. Demonstrating Kim’s masterful mise-en-scene and searing script, this segment makes gripping viewing as Ahab exchanges acerbic remarks with MacKenzie on a satellite call from Langley, and verbally spars with his brutish lieutenant Markus (Kevin Durand) and rookie Logan (Spencer Daniels). It’s a very effective buildup to the film’s first all-out action scene, when Ahab’s unit storms through tunnels into a central cavern, nicks their asset, King, and subdues his aides.
Things immediately go awry. Ahab discovers King has been shot and is bleeding heavily — not a good sign, as he needs to get the North Korean supremo out alive to allow McGregor to emerge triumphant before his electorate. But the commandos and the U.S. have been duped by Pyongyang: King’s “defection” is just an excuse for the North Korean state machine (and its sponsors in Beijing) to blame Washington for killing their leader and to declare war.
What follows is Ahab’s struggle to handle a betrayal from within his own ranks, and then the CIA’s abrupt withdrawal of support — his backers, as it turns out, have a much more murderous plot at hand. There’s a reason why they have employed Ahab’s unit, all of whom are undocumented immigrants in the U.S. and thus entirely expendable. Ahab’s survival hinges on keeping King alive, with the aid of the North Korean leader’s medic, Yoon (Lee Sun-kyun, A Hard Day).
To his credit, Kim has handled all these multiple twists and turns with aplomb. The rationale is convincing and the plotting precise as he ushers his characters along. Kim Byung-seo’s camerawork and Yoo Dae-won’s special effects up the ante throughout, though the thrills are more mental than pyrotechnical.
Affecting performances by Ha and Lee as the South and North Koreans forced to work together contribute immensely to a humanist approach to geopolitics. Take Point adds to a growing slate of South Korean movies — last year’s excellent The Spy Gone North among them — which fuse genre filmmaking with scything social commentary.
Production companies: Perfect Storm Film in a CJ Entertainment presentation
Cast: Ha Jung-woo, Lee Sun-kyun, Jennifer Ehle, Kevin Durand
Director-screenwriter: Kim Byung-woo
Producers: Kang Myung-chan, Kim Young-hoon, Ha Jung-woo
Executive producers: Heo Min-heoi with Mike Im
Director of photography: Kim Byung-seo
Production designer: Kim Byung-han
Costume designer: Chae Kyung-hwa
Music: Lee Ju-noh
Editing: Kim Chang-ju
Special effects: Yoon Dae-won
Visual effects: Song Yong-gu
Casting director (U.S.): John Jackson
Sales: CJ Entertainment
In English and Korean
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