I have often said that when it came to certain movie genres, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Kim Ji-Woon’s “A Bittersweet Life” was the perfect example how something so simple could create a fine cinematic experience because of its focus and the way it was executed rather than how original a film could be. Director/writer Im Sang-Yoon’s “A Company Man” has a very similar core premise to Kim Ji-Woon’s early film, and it would be easy to compare it to that 2005 film. The difference is, Im Sang-Yoon’s film is probably more straight-forward while “A Bittersweet Life” was probably deeper at its core. Still, despite its rather slow pacing, “A Company Man” is a hard-boiled action at its best, and it reaches an area that certainly defines Korean action films.
Ji Hyeong-Do (So Ji-Seob) is an impeccably dressed company man who seemingly works for metal works company, except that this company is merely a front and this company’s business is murder. The company is made up of an organized group of hitmen, and Ji is one of its best assassins. Ji has nothing in his life save for his friendship with a retired hitman, Ban (Lee Kyeong-Yeong) and his work, and his devotion to his company has earned him a promotion among its ranks. One day, Ji decides to do something different, and this move takes him to a chance meeting with a single mother, Yuk Mi-Yeon (Lee Mi-Yeon) and he instantly feels close to her. Now feeling guilty about his bloody past, Hyeong-Do seeks to begin a new life. But quitting a business of murder is not as easy as quitting a regular job and Ji now finds himself hunted by his former colleagues.
The core premise of the film is pretty standard and quite frankly very unoriginal. One look and I was instantly reminded of “A Bittersweet Life”. Despite its predictability, there was something that was able to grab me because of the workings of the plot. A story about redemption or about wanting to leave a bloody past has been overplayed, and honestly, there are some films that has done it better. “A Company Man”, however, acknowledges that it is not reinventing the wheel and the direction does not hide this fact. What it does is capitalize on its strong points and creates an experience that has a load of style, and it manages to flesh out the main characters to create an attachment to its viewer.
The screenplay was able to give the viewer a look as to how this ‘company’ works and it also keeps certain details hidden up to the final act in order to maintain a feeling of an enigma and mysterious allure. What some may call ‘lack of development’ becomes one of its main strengths, as this company is somehow able to run an organization under the nose of the police and just who or how they get their clients. How they recruit, and how they choose who worked for them was shown, but really the writing kept things at arm’s length to keep it mysterious. To do this, characters such as Gwon (Do Won Kwak) and Ra Hun (Dong-jun Kim) were introduced to create a company that runs much like any other (the exposition of files) and yet so different. The dynamics between the ‘company’ and the police were also touched upon, and this creates a bridge to establish just how careful and meticulous this ‘hitmen’ organization is with their business. The writing is pretty light when it came to details, so that the focus would fall on its main protagonist.
Ji Yeong-Do was rather mysterious and very little becomes known about him. Ji-Seob So was a fine pick to play this enigmatic hitman; as he had the demeanor and the presence to pull it off. The actor looked rather simple, and this was what made things work for the film. It made the changes within the character quite convincing, and the direction sold its story. The writing was also able to create a look into the employees of the ‘company’, as Ji comes to realize things because of his old ‘supervisor’s’ experience of lost(played by Ha-Bok Yu). Mi-Yeon Lee may not have that much screen time, but her character as being the second catalyst for the change in Ji made sense. She was hard-working and simple, with a close link to Yeong-Do because of her own history. I know, this area in the script felt rather obligatory, but the direction handled it well that I was able to feel the emotions as Ji came to some sort of epiphany. The performances were pretty effective that I was able to ignore the clichés in the script.
The film may have been a little slow in its early minutes, as the screenplay establishes a connection and gain a foothold. But once the film picks up, it goes into a very brisk pace as Ji goes on the hunt. I liked how the action choreography was stylish, and yet it stuck to a feeling of authenticity. It was able to communicate with the action scenes because the moves displayed on screen were made to be seen as moves made to maim or kill. The hand to hand fights weren’t overplayed and the choreography matched those that were seen in “Taken”; efficient and simple combat moves made for maximum effect. The film do get quite visceral and bloody. Gunfights come by the bucket loads in the last 35 minutes of the film as Ji is forced to take his last stand, but it was careful not to become exploitive. The editing and the camerawork in the film’s action sequences were made to exhilarate and generate tension, as one could easily feel the power and the emotions of the scenes.
The cinematography was excellent. There was something that felt just right as the director made the smooth transitions from one scene to the next. I liked the way it seemed to focus on close ups, and shots from the side, as if the film was trying to convey the stakes through its characters. The film was ‘hard-boiled’ cool, and it made its visceral elements balance out its more stylish shots. It also carried small doses of symbolism to present the idea of freedom from regret.
“A Company Man” is not original, some workings in its script were cliché, but somehow, the writing and the direction made its more emotional moments carry the burden of selling its visceral punch. The film is more than a tale of redemption, but rather a story of a wish for freedom and to have a new beginning. It did not glorify the workings of a hitman but rather it was able to present its consequences. The final scene spoke a lot for the art in its execution, as the motivations behind Ji Yeong-Do’s change of heart became fully revealed. It was not for love at all, but for something that he had lost back then. That touch, made the film a much more rewarding film that it earns a recommendation from me. [3 ½ Out of 5 Stars]
Despite the fact that the premise of "A Company Man" reminded me of the 2005 action hit "A Bittersweet Life", the hard-boiled action in this film gave me a lot of visceral entertainment. South Korea is really kicking it in the action-thriller genre. See Full Review Here.