At once an old-fashioned action-adventure of the sort Harrison Ford once felt so at home in, an elegiac historical drama with shades of Sergio Leone, and a guts-and-glory shoot ‘em up that recalls Inglourious Basterds, Choi Dong-hoon’s Assassination offers up plenty of bang for its buck.
With it’s budget astonishingly listed at only $16 million, the film plays out over the Japanese colonial rule in Korea during the early 20th Century. The majority of Assassination’s action takes place in 1933 when a team of three resistance fighters — sharpshooter Ahn Ok-yun (Jun Ji-hyun), explosives guy Hwang Deok-sam (Choi Deok-moon), and the self-explanatory “Big Gun” (Cho jin-woong) — are sent to assassinate two key figures in the occupation.
Unbeknownst to them, however, their dispatcher, silver-fingered former hitman Yeom Seok-jin (Lee Jung-jae), is a traitor who has hired two mercenaries, unlikely love interest Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo) and his sidekick Old Man (Oh Dal-su with mutton-chops), to take them out. And all of this taking place in three separate languages.
Assassination contains innumerable fistfights, shootouts, and assorted other chaos, ranging from the hillsides of Machuria to an apartment store in Gyeongseong. Dong-hoon picks out a few key character moments amidst the melee – like Hwang’s first visit to a coffee shop — largely aided by Kim Woo-hyung’s lavish cinematography, which finds the textured beauty in everything from the patinaed paint of a stream train to the period dress.
At 142 minutes, though, an overabundance of characters and endless series of denouements suggest the same more-is-more attitude that made the end of Return of the King so painfully protracted. An epilogue set twenty years later is supposed to carry some political weight, but it’s a thematic burden the film can’t support.
Assassination is a silly, self-serious piece of confection with more layers to it than your average wedding cake — and at least ten times the figures on top. It’s fine to have your cake and eat it, but you need to know when to stop.