Director: Heo Myung-haeng
Cast: Ma Dong-seok, Lee Hee-Jun, Lee Jun-Young, Roh Jeong-Eui, Ahn Ji-Hye, Park Ji-Hoon, Jang Young-Namm, Park Sang-Hoon , Ahn Seong-Bong
Running Time: 107 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Badland Hunters marks the latest entry in Korea’s burgeoning fascination with post-apocalyptic settings, a spin-off from director Eom Tae-hwa’s Concrete Utopia, which saw a group of survivors living in the last standing apartment block after an earthquake razed Seoul to the ground. Released on Netflix in January 2024 with less than 6 months having passed since Concrete Utopia hit cinema screens, Badland Hunters arrived straight to streaming as the equivalent of a 2000’s era DTV sequel to a cinematic hit. Set several years after the events of its predecessor, we’re introduced to a Seoul which has now become a savage wasteland with water and food in short supply, and marauding bandits terrorising those just trying to get by. If you’ve ever seen any post-apocalyptic movie, you know the score.
It’s a risky move, especially considering the last time Korea attempted a sequel which transitioned events into a post-apocalyptic future we got the less than well received Train to Busan follow-up Peninsula (of which only one reviewer on the entire internet seemed to prefer it to the original). This time around though Badland Hunters comes with a different director to its predecessor, marking the debut of action director and stuntman veteran Heo Myung-haeng. While Myung-haeng has been around since the early days of the Korean Wave in the 2000’s, he’s arguably never received so much attention as he has at the time of writing, with all eyes on him for his sophomore outing as a director – the (yet to be released) 4th instalment of the Ma Dong-seok franchise The Roundup: Punishment.
Myung-haeng and Dong-seok have an extensive history of working together dating back 10 years to 2014’s Kundo: Age of the Rampant, during which time they’ve collaborated on over 10 productions, including the likes of the previously mentioned Train to Busan and all 3 instalments of The Roundup franchise. The good news is for his directorial debut Myung-haeng has also enlisted Dong-seok as his leading man, playing a kindly boxer turned post-apocalyptic butcher. Almost as if to set the pulpy B-movie tone from the get-go, we first meet Dong-seok saving his teenage assistant (played by the not-so-teenage Lee Jun-young – Love and Leashes, Brave Citizen) from a giant crocodile armed only with a machete. I’m not sure anyone was ever expecting to see Dong-seok battle a CGI crocodile, but then I’m equally sure people said the same thing about Arnold Schwarzenegger before 1996’s Eraser.
Why crocodiles are roaming the streets of post-apocalyptic Seoul is not a question Badland Hunters wants you to concern yourself with, and in any case, once the plot begins to emerge it’s a question that’ll get pushed further and further down the list. Dong-seok and Jun-young are friendly with another teenager and her grandmother, played by Roh Jeong-eui (I Am a Dad, The Phone) and Sung Byung-sook (Seven Years of Night, The Yellow Sea) respectively, seemingly for no other reason beyond some unrequited teenage romance. When Jeong-eui and Byung-sook are invited to join a special program that would see them relocated to a building with running water and fresh food, the offer seems too good to pass up, but naturally the deal is one that comes with sinister ulterior motives.
Run by a mad scientist played by Lee Hee-jun (Miss Baek, Misbehavior), having discovered a way to bring the dead back to life following the death of his daughter, the fact that such a discovery requires extracting liquid from teenager’s pituitary glands means a constant supply of youngsters is required. The issue of supply and demand is exasperated further by the fact that he’s teamed up with a group of rogue military personnel who’ve started injecting themselves with Hee-jun’s serum, effectively making them unkillable super soldiers. When Dong-seok and Jun-young cross paths with an ex-member of the military group played by Ahn Ji-hye (Project Wolf Hunting, Slate), she spills the beans about what’s really going on in the building, and together they form a trio to put an end to the crazy experiments for good and save their friends.
If it wasn’t clear already, the metaphorical approach that Concrete Utopia took is here non-existent, instead replaced by punches to the face and super soldiers turning into reptiles. It’s almost like a conspiracy theorist dream movie – elitists extracting life giving serums from teenagers, and reptiles secretly running the world. Not surprisingly Badland Hunters connection to Concrete Utopia has been equally non-existent in Netflix’s promotion of the title, perhaps the penny dropping that it’d be difficult to attract viewers if it’s billed as a spin-off for a movie that’s not available on the platform. Instead we’re left with a derogative and often torturously dumb take on the post-apocalyptic genre, with most characters reduced to broad caricatures, including the obligatory bandit dwarf (probably the only person who doesn’t get punched out by Dong-seok in the entire runtime, a missed opportunity if ever there was one).
Myung-haeng expectedly has a firm grasp on the action scenes, but the scenes that surround them frequently give him away as a first-time director. One scene inexplicably changes from night to day, and most of the supposedly 18-year-olds act more like they’re 12, which makes for some of Badland Hunters most teeth gratingly cringe worthy scenes. Special mention has to go to Lee Han-joo, here making her feature length debut, cast as another teenager invited to join the special program who over enthusiastically befriends Jeong-eui (by literally asking her “Shall we be friends!?”). If there was an award for the worst acting in a Korean movie since its film industry began, her performance here would be a strong contender, choosing to portray her naïve character as one with a constantly beaming smile and seemingly zero awareness of her surroundings. Her exit from the narrative is one of Badland Hunters highlights.
Unsurprisingly it’s the action that makes Myung-haeng’s debut worth a look, however what is a surprise is that its arguably Ahn Ji-hye who steals the show, the glimpses we got of her action capabilities in the likes of Slate here on full display. I’m sure I said in one of my previous reviews that it’d be impossible to ever get tired of watching Dong-seok punch people in the face, but as much as I hate to eat my words, we’ve seen his fists in action so much in recent years that here it is starting to feel a little repetitive. So much so that it’s actually a relief when he brandishes a pump action shotgun in the finale and starts (literally) blowing peoples heads off (like Highlander, decapitating the head is the only way to kill the super soldiers). Indeed Myung-haeng wisely dedicates almost the entirety of the final 40 minutes to a Raid-esque attack on the building Hee-jun is holed up in, delivering plenty of satisfying action beats along the way.
Credit should be given for casting Park Ji-hoon as the leader of the super soldiers that Dong-seok is left to face off against, re-teaming them both with Myung-haeng from 2018’s Unstoppable. If anyone could withstand Dong-seok’s fists, then a genetically modified killing machines chances have to be up there, and the pair go at it in a brief but satisfyingly high impact brawl that sees them giving as good as they get. As much as Dong-seok has admitted he isn’t a fan of over-the-top gory violence, here he has to resort to a particularly gruesome finishing move, but like a modern-day Arnold Schwarzenegger, he still gets in the expected comedic quip.
As a directorial debut with Badland Hunters Heo Myung-haeng proves his action talents as was expected, which paired with Dong-seok’s typically affable onscreen persona shows the potential of a winning combination. Whenever Dong-seok is not onscreen though, which ultimately feels a little too frequently, the cracks in the narrative, wafer thin characters, and rent-a-post-apocalyptic CGI backgrounds push Badland Hunters into the kind of instantly forgettable territory the majority of Netflix productions fall into. Here’s hoping for Myung-haeng’s debut on the big screen when his sophomore directorial outing hits later in the same year, such grips will be nowhere to be seen.
Paul Bramall’s Rating: 5.5/10