The Man from Nowhere
You can usually trace a movie’s genome, build the chain of influences that starts when one director revitalizes a genre, then influences a few others. One of them perhaps inspires a different one to make something great.
It’s just not usually this easy.
Perhaps it’s the benefit of hindsight, having seen The Man from Nowhere late and out of sequence, but you can see that chain leading straight from The Professional in 1984 and then moving on to John Wick in 2014.
Let’s start with The Professional. Seen initially moping around a dilapidated apartment building and keeping to himself while he runs a pawn shop, Bin Won’s Cha Tae-sik bonds only with So-mi, the daughter of their building’s erratic junkie. Said junkie just happened to have wronged some mobsters on a drug deal at the very start of the movie. Once that blows up in junkie mom’s face, Tae-sik, clad all in black and at times honest-to-god looking like an asian Keanu Reeves, body language straightening just slightly, his hair-covered face starts turning from quiet expressionless into mysterious murder machine as he tries to save So-mi from the gangsters.
Unlike John Wick, fighting is their Jaws. Director Jeong-beom Lee only hints at Cha Tae-sik’s skill for a good chunk of the movie, showing blink-and-you-miss-it flashes of quick movement or the aftermath of his actions: a hand darting out to disarm an unsuspecting thug, a body flying over a table, an unconscious flunky sliding into frame and then hitting a wall. He does this so well that I thought we were going to get little actual action, and it was mostly going to be merely suggested.
But that last fight. Oh Jesus Kickboxing Azathoth Jones that last fight is as sudden and as shocking and as memorable as the shark coming out of the water and straight at Chief Brody as he distractedly drops the bait.
Bin Won is unexpectedly good. I don’t recall having seen him before, and god fucking dammit I’m going to remember him. I can’t believe he hasn’t made a single movie since this one – good actor, young and with such a great piece of work in his resume I’d expect him to be showing up in every movie that gets filmed in any place where they’ve even heard of Seoul right now.
In fact, with his good looks and initially expressionless act, you’d have expected him to have been hired out of a male model catalog or boy band line up. He has a fine touch, though, and since he does it so subtly it didn’t become clear until almost the last act what he’s delicately up to: he gradually and methodically un-mutes his expressions and body language as the movie progresses, letting more bubble up to the surface the same way that Cha Tae-sik starts little by little opening up to and reconnecting with the world.
You don’t expect to find that sort of subtlety in a movie that’s by and large about shooting, stabbing, punching, and otherwise efficiently dispatching baddies, and it’s his work that helps elevate it.