A confession that will win me no new friends at kamera, or for which no penance is too long and arduous, is my barely-repressed passion for big, dumb, action extravaganzas. Not cod-philosophical digi-bores like The Matrix or The Phantom Menace (both 1999), or romps around resuscitated genres like The Mummy (1999) or XXX (2002). No, I’m talking about the shameless, 18-certificated, testosterone-fuelled epics that 9/11 and the former action stars’ collective fall from box office grace have all but put killed off.
I’m talking about skyscrapers becoming expensive Roman candles while Arnie smokes a cigar, planes colliding mid-air, Bruce’s dirty vest, boats being turned over, and snipers narrowly missing their bemuscled targets. There are probably retreats for people like me, where we can be slowly weaned off our crippling addiction to ultra-right wing bullet-fests with extra wisecracks on the side – but there no longer seems to be any need. No C-list British actors want to hold high-speed trains to ransom any more, and no off-duty cop wants to crawl through air ducts to save us. The supply has all but dried up. Thankfully here comes Shiri to reinvigorate my love of perspiration-soaked shirts, cheesy dialogue, big guns and even bigger bangs.
Made back in 1998, it has taken a while for this crude but effective film policier to reach our shores. After a recently inserted title card, which gives us a York Notes history of the last fifty years of Korean hostility, we are plunged into the kind of heroic mish-mash that would make Joel Silver weep with pride. Two buddy cops are chasing a deadly female assassin (Yoon-jin) who is paving the way for some disgruntled North Korean military tearaways to get hold of an experimental explosive liquid. It’s certainly not Tolstoy. In fact it’s not even Ian Fleming. The only culturally significant point one can wean from this against-the-clock pursuit is that Samsung (the film’s production company) seem to make everything in South Korea. They even sponsor the secret service’s helicopter. Now that is product placement at its wildest extremes.
One hangover from the Don Simpson days is the patriotic, jingoistic score that accompanies the manoeuvres of the malevolent splinter group. Is this an eastern homage that has lost its context in the shift across the Pacific? Simpson and Bruckheimer’s celebration of gung-ho fighting forces saw a standard assonance attached to anything vaguely valiant; here it is anachronistic for the villains’ to be afforded the same musical treatment. It should be noted, however that the North Koreans are allowed as many moments to justify their positions as the home team. One would have a rougher time finding such ideological fair play in a Stallone movie.
The reason this review harks back to the good old days of senseless violence and one-liners is that Shiri not only shares the values of its Western stablemates, but almost hypnotically replicates them. As if attempting to add as many samples from the greats of genre the film will happily skip across blatant steals from Air Force One (1997), Leon (1994) and The Silence of the Lambs (1990) in a single scene. So confident is the director that, as an audience, we are well versed in the clichés and classic moments of Hollywood actioners, that at times standard plot developments are almost subliminal.
One character’s tracking of a terrorist leader and subsequent death by impalement literally takes three shots and two seconds to happen on screen. By the time your brain has computed what has happened we have diverted off down another derivative alleyway. Just like the first foot chase through the malls and back streets of Seoul, Shiri is a hulking great shark of a film that is desperate to keep moving for fear of dying from its overdose of unoriginality. I dare you to find a film released this year with as much bloodshed and verve, and so little pretension or invention.