“The City of Violence” – A.J. Hakari

I don’t know about you, but when I hear the title The City of Violence, a number of images are conjured in my mind. I imagine a metropolis where gunfights are the norm, where you can’t walk two feet without running into someone that wants to beat you down, and where there are enough explosions to make Sylvester Stallone weep. What I don’t think of, however, is a dreadfully boring revenge saga where not only is there more talk than there is action, the talk isn’t even all that interesting. Unfortunately, this is how The City of Violence turns out, starting off on a sour note that only grows more pungent as the story insists on progressing.


Coming across as reminiscent of both ’70s exploitation flicks (funk soundtrack and all) and Westerns, The City of Violence centers around a group of old high school chums brought together when an ex-convict friend of theirs (Ahn Kil-kang) is stabbed to death by a bunch of young punks. The gang hasn’t been all together in almost 20 years, so an occasion such as the funeral of one of their own leads to a flurry of emotions bubbling to the surface. But something doesn’t sit right with one of the guys, a hard-boiled detective named Tae-soo (Jung Doo-hong). Although he knew his deceased buddy was never fully on the straight and narrow, Tae-soo finds it hard to believe that a bunch of upstart kids got the best of him. Thus, with the help of the criminally-inclined Seok-hwan (Ryoo Seung-wan, also the film’s director), Tae-soo launches an investigation into their amigo’s death, uncovering some startling info that may pin the murder to someone in their own circle of friends.


I never expected or even wanted The City of Violence to reshape the foundation of what I thought a modern crime drama should be. All I was looking for was to see a few butts being kicked and a couple of heads being bashed, all in a fairly consistent and stylish package. But even on the most basic levels possible, The City of Violence just can’t seem to gather enough moxie to own up to its promises. The action sequences are scarce, which is perfectly fine, but they arrive with so little flair and come across as hardly pulse-pounding, you wonder why the filmmakers even made the effort. There’s an early scene that shows promise, with Tae-soo and Seok-hwan battling about four different, Warriors-style gangs by themselves, but the inexplicable presence of these gangs and how they disappear from the story is confusing enough to give your cerebral cortex whiplash. Much of the film tends to work this way, as not only is it peppered with drab action sequences, you have to slog through even more flavorless filler (which can be referred to collectively as “the plot“) to get to them.


Speaking of story, you might as well abandon all hopes of The City of Violence forming a compelling narrative before you even pop the DVD into your player. The film has the revenge angle going for it, but investing any attachment in the characters proves to be a gamble and a half. Doo-hong and Seung-wan work out well as the flick’s resident badasses, but the other characters and the paper-thin story they inhabit are pretty much at the mercy of the filmmakers. They amount to little more than interchangable personalities randomly pulled into a plot that dawdles for what feels like forever on nothing of real importance, lurching from plot twist to plot twist with all the excitement of someone getting a root canal from that twitchy homeless guy down the street. In short, The City of Violence doesn’t really expand the story beyond one set of people beating up another set of people, and its attempts to explain away/compile the turn of events under the umbrella of a not-so-evil grand scheme will either inspire yawns or laughs from the viewers at home.


I suppose The City of Violence can seem like pretty hot stuff for someone who’s fresh to the world of Asian action cinema. But for me at least, it really says something when a movie like Hot Fuzz that’s wryly poking fun at the action genre’s many conventions and cliches comes across as more genuinely entertaining than something like this flick, which is supposed to be playing things straight.


Rating: ★½☆☆


-A.J. Hakari

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