Don Lee is a big man. With very big fists. It would be easy for a man like Don Lee to have scripts written entirely around how hard his fists can punch his opponents, and leave it at that, ‘acting’ be damned. But to his immense credit, Lee (sometimes known as Dong-seok Ma, but more often as Don Lee as his profile rises with Western audiences) is also a magnetic and gifted screen performer. With his recent lauded performances in films like Train To Busan and The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Lee is sure to soon enter the pantheon of massive, big-fisted men who can not only wow a crowd with their figure, but actually act to boot. In Kim Min-Ho’s Unstoppable, Lee is certainly strong, both as man and performer; if only the rest of the film was not so weakly executed in comparison.
This film, written and directed by Min-Ho, has leaned into a reputation as ‘the Korean Taken.’ Sure enough, mild-mannered Dong-Chui (Lee) becomes the wrong man to have messed with when sadistic gangsters led by the colorfully deranged Ki-Tae (Seong-oh Kim) kidnap his wife for purely diabolical reasons. The film takes its time setting up the confrontation, however, including a lengthy McGuffin surrounding the importation of king crab, a product that may or may not spell riches for Dong-Chui’s starved financial situation as a fishmonger. But his earnest attempts to provide for his wife Ji-Soo (Ji-Hyo Song) quickly become irrelevant as Ki-Tae arbitrarily decides to abduct Ji-Soo because he finds her pretty, and add her to his harrowing harem of captive women. Cue the righteous punch-crusade.
The film becomes considerably boring for a stretch, even after Ji-Soo is kidnapped, because like other refrigerator-sized heroes in film history, this Herculean powerhouse has been earnestly trying to ditch his violent capabilities, and resolve his matters without resorting to fistfights. This is clearly a deliberate plot move to get the audience’s mouths watering for Dong-Chui to drop the niceties and get on with the annihilating combat — and rest assured, he does. Perhaps the highlight of the film for me came when a nasty, small-time crook who owes Dong-Chui money, but has been callously taking advantage of his mild manner and ignoring him, refuses to repay Dong-Chui once and for all. Ignoring his pleas and explanation that he needs the money to try and find his wife, the crook orders his languid goons to make Dong-Chui leave his sweaty little office. In a scene cleverly constructed to build suspense, the goons move towards Dong-Chui, insisting he leave, poking and prodding him. After a few too many pushes, Lee turns his massive head towards the offending goon, with his signature you-asked-for-it stare, and with a flick of his wrist, bats him into a metal door, which immediately crunches and buckles from the power of the punch. The camera even lingers on the goon’s crumpled body and the obliterated door, reflecting the aghast faces of the other henchmen who just realized what they’re up against. Yes, Don Lee is kicking ass again.
The rest of the film really just follows that last sentence to a T. A few of Dong-Chui’s friends and associates assist his quest to find and free his wife along the way, to reasonably amusing comic effect, but the bulk of the action really belongs to Lee and his fists, which becomes rather repetitive. That being said, the eye-popping extravagance and mania of Ki-Tae is played with clear relish in a standout performance by Kim, and comes close to rivaling Lee’s unforgettable screen presence from time to time. Min-Ho commendably executes one of the cardinal rules of action filmmaking: a good hero must have a good villain. Ki-Tae does not disappoint, though his revolting villainy may make some blanche, and one might claim he borrows one too many traits from a maniacal sadist number one, The Joker.
Lee and Kim’s excellent performances aside, the rest of this is quite conspicuously lacking much soul or weight. The dialogue is trite, and the camerawork has no real personality or discernible style. The plot itself takes one too many cues from Taken, a film I personally found very disappointing, in that it is paper-thin and charmlessly crass. Even when the film lets Ji-Soo have some kickass moments, these come off conspicuously as attempts to give the woman some agency, but without letting her actually achieve anything. It rings quite hollow when she seems determined to be her own character, yet the script never follows through.
Don Lee is a star, and he deserves to be — he certainly has more charm in Unstoppable than Neeson ever did in all three Taken‘s — but Min-Ho’s film does not harness any of his talent in particularly memorable ways. Apart from that obliterated door. That will stay with me.
Reviewer: Nathaniel Brimmer-Beller