Director: Byun Sung-hyun
Cast: Jeon Do-yeon, Sol Kyung-Gu, Kim Si-A, Esom, Koo Gyo-Hwan, Lee Yeon, Lee Jae-Wook, Park Se-Hyun, Ahn Seong-Bong, Kim Sung-Oh, Ki Joo- Bongs
Duration: 137 mins.
By Paul Bramhall
At this point there are very few active actors and directors left who haven’t worked with Netflix in one way or another, and in 2023 arguably Korean cinema’s most highly regarded actress, Jeon Do-yeon, made her first appearance for the giant stream. Clearly going for the all-in approach, she went for a double whammy by directing the romantic drama series Crash course in romance to kick off the year, and with less than 4 weeks since the last nationally aired episode, she’s headlining the killer action outing at the end of March Kill Boksoon (a play on his character name Gil Boksoon).
For those suffering from female killer movie fatigue, a perfectly reasonable symptom considering only in the last 5 years we’ve had Ava, Mary Fair, Kate, Gunpowder shake, Red Sparrow, Mary, Black Widow, Anna, ProtectedAND Little killers (I probably miss him the most), so it might be best to get out now. For everyone else, Kill Boksoon offers Do-yeon as an elite assassin working for what can best be described as a union of assassins. The union grades its staff accordingly, and despite having passed its prime, Do-yeon is still an A-grade, a fact that causes a slight disputed between the fellow assassins she is closest to.
Workplace jealousy is the least of her problems though, with the single mother worried about a fresh-out-of-the-closet high school-age daughter played by Kim Kim Si-a (Ashfall, Miss Baek), whose relationship with a girl at school leads to the expected drama. Adding to her stress levels is the fact that her contract as an assassin is about to be renewed and she has to deal with the affection of the president of both unions, played by Sol Kyung-gu (Idol, Yaksha – ruthless operations), and a fellow assassin, played by Koo Kyo-hwan (Escape from Mogadishu, peninsula). But in her heart Kill Boksoon it’s based on the same trope as pretty much every other assassin-themed fiction out there — at one point Do-yeon refuses to go through with a hit, which puts her in the crosshairs of both her employers and her acquaintances.
In a career spanning 25 years, Do-yeon rarely gets it wrong when it comes to her big screen work, which means when she does it makes it all the more painful (Memories of the sword AND Emergency declaration immediately comes to mind) and unfortunately Kill Boksoon ends up a regrettable effort. The 5th feature film by director and screenwriter Byun Sung-hyun, after solid work on the likes of 2021 Kingmaker and 2016 The ruthless (both also feature Sol Kyung-gu), here it struggles to find a meaningful narrative drive to justify the whopping nearly 140-minute running time.
It opens with a pre-title scene that sees Do-yeon face off with a cameo Hwang Jung-min (Deliver us from evil, Veteran), their brief duel contains what I’d like to think was an intentional homage to Cynthia Khan’s skirt-ripping In the line of duty III, before seeing Do-yeon’s assassin do what she does best. However the scene also serves as a microcosm that features many Kill Boksoon cracking. Do-yeon’s ability to predict how certain scenarios will unfold often sees an action scene unfold, only to be cut sharply to reveal that what we were watching is only in his imagination. This technique can work well when used sparingly, perhaps the best example being that of Eric Jacobus Death grip since 2012, however here it gradually becomes a frustration. Any more than in a ridiculous ending that sees multiple versions of itself literally fill the screen at the same time like a multiverse gone awry. It just feels free.
There’s also what I like to call several cases of the “Netflix curse.” Clearly the production has a decent budget under its belt, but there’s no escaping the fact that many of the environments we watch characters interact in are there via green screen (both Seoul atmosphere AND Young fail at the same problem), confused by the fact that, outside of the main cast, the world they inhabit seems eerily devoid of people. Many of the scenes consist of only a handful of characters and are usually in a confined space, thus making the world Kill Boksoon it plays out in an oddly limited and lacking depth, an aspect of the production that only feels more pronounced thanks to the long runtime.
The other problem comes in the form of direction of action. While both Netflix and studios in general seem to appreciate more about how long it takes to create a physically demanding action sequence in recent years, one element that continues to disappoint such sequences is the inability to convey the power behind a blockbuster. This is something filmmakers seem to be aware of when working with non-martial arts trained artists, making sure they have a weapon in hand rather than being called upon to deliver a convincing punch or kick, yet most of these narratives see the our protagonist go empty handed at one point. Just like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in Kate or Ruby Rose inside The goalkeeperhere every time Do-yeon throws a punch, the wrist is painfully limp, immediately taking the viewer out of the action and making the solid choreography that has entered the scene seem too transparent, losing all sense of impact and realism.
Those are my final Netflix-specific gripes, but overall it seems like Sung-hyun’s latest is having an identity crisis, and it’s not just that it completely lacks the cinematic feel that all of his previous productions have. What Kill Boksoon it’s actually hard to tell, with no real narrative thread at the forefront and too much time spent on Do-yeon’s relationship with side characters who aren’t all that important. Esom (Microhabitats, The man in high heels) makes a welcome appearance as 2 agenciesna in charge, however her performance comes off as if no one told her that Kyung-gu’s character is her brother, instead acting like a seductive femme fatale towards him who is jealous of his feelings towards Do-yeon. It’s a head-scratching role taken in context, and it’s hard to ascertain exactly what Sung-hyun was aiming for.
It’s probably the assassin’s union that’s the funniest aspect Kill Boksoon. I remember when John Wick it came out in 2014 i called it a well done rip off of 2012 korean movie A man of company, in which So Ji-sub plays a murderer as if it were any other white-collar job. Sung-hyun goes for something similar here, with the film’s best fight involving an intern played by Lee Yeon (Wave height, Cosmos) thrown at a target in a grimy public restroom, only to be revealed as a set for a training evaluation in the assassin evaluation academy (which turns out to be based on one of Do-yeon’s legendary hits from 5 years earlier). Unfortunately Yeon adds yet another thread to the already overstuffed narrative by becoming the intern Do-yeon is paired with to oversee her first hit, playing a character whose appearance seems more than a little affected by Kim Go’s appearance -eun in 2014 Coin cabinet girl.
The origins of Do-yeon’s character seem confusing at best, with some surprisingly dark implications we see in flashbacks from the past that seemingly bear no relation to how we’re supposed to feel about her character in the present. Frankly it’s hard not to conclude that Sung-hyun’s screenplay likely failed a first draft, as the end result is both overly talkative and often incoherent. For a movie about assassins, the action scenes feel sparse, and whenever they come there’s a heavy reliance on camera movement to create the kinetic energy such scenes need to be convincing (and at this point we’re not all bored of the obvious digital stitching to create a continuous shot?). In the end “convincing” is not a word I would associate Kill Boksoonand I can’t help but think the whole thing would’ve been a lot funnier if Hwang Jung-min had delivered the title in his pre-credits cameo.
Paul Bramhall’s assessment: 4/10