If there is one reason to see the action thriller The Killer, it is for the presence of Korean action star Jang Hyuk. He plays the retired hitman Ui-gang who mostly just loves his coffee and keeps to himself without much of a care in the world. He is quietly intimidating in a manner that makes his subsequent return to killing feel inevitable, as if he was just looking for a reason to get back to what he does best. When his wife takes a trip, he is tasked with looking after the daughter of her traveling companion. Initially annoyed with this responsibility, he soon will have to jump into action in order to protect her from a sinister world. What follows is an experience that gestures at the action stunts found in a film like John Wick which is then crossed with a narrative that feels like a watered-down version of You Were Never Really Here. Unfortunately, The Killer is not nearly as good as either of those vastly superior works.
The positives come in the action itself, mainly two sequences that really come alive. One is an extended fight where Ui-gang must take down oncoming attackers in a building he has come to investigate. Going from the confines of an elevator to a hallway and adjoining rooms, the scene feels dynamic in a way most of the film does not. It is well-choreographed and staged with all the stunt performers expertly selling the scene. You feel every hit as the camera dances around the characters, observing it all as though it is a one-shot sequence. Any cuts are relatively well-hidden such as when the camera zooms in on a combatant’s back only to pull back for the fighting to continue. The other highlight comes towards the end, as Ui-gang fights while using a fancy bar as cover. It sees the equally matched fighters rolling around each other from cover, angling to get close enough to land a blow or clip the other with a shot. When you’re in the midst of these scenes, the film manages to tap into something kinetic.
Outside of these moments, the rest of the experience feels generally lackluster. Centered on Ui-gang digging into the mystery of who is behind a human trafficking operation, the rather shallow narrative feels like it is an excuse to get to more action sequences. This is all well and good, as many other works have similarly made use of a bare-bones narrative just to get to the next big fight. The only issue is that said fights are generally scattered and fleeting, save for the two standout ones there just aren’t that many other moments that jump out. While Ui-gang is a convincingly ruthless killer whose skills are unmatched, the film often struggles to find something to point him at. The best action films are ones that are economical, wasting no time in throwing the characters into fights. While there is a need to establish some sort of narrative stakes, this all must be in service of the action itself. The Killer initially seems to take this to heart, showing Ui-gang in the middle of a big fight before he gets a text message. It then jumps back in time to unnecessarily lay everything out about how he got there.
This not only undercuts the investment we had in this opening scene, it then takes quite a bit of time to really get going. While his more conventional domestic life and interior monologue offer a chance at some humor, it starts to quickly wear thin as we wait for things to kick into gear. By the time we get there, many of the scenes feel held together by repetition. We will see Ui-gang go to a place, smack some people around for information, and then leave to go do it all again. He certainly looks cool with his coffee cup frequently in hand, as if he is just going out for a stroll and not killing his way through the city, but it starts to feel painfully directionless. There is subterfuge, betrayal, and unexpected revelations, though it all lacks any greater sense of momentum. There are some stylistic visual moments that go a long way in pushing through the slog of the story. However, this only leaves one wishing that the narrative itself felt more engaging. Instead, it feels like an unnecessary detriment to the overall experience. The film becomes more formulaic than it does fun, as it goes through the motions without any prevailing joy to it. This leaves it feeling like one of those films where you marvel at the stunt work you get to see while still being disappointed at how lacking the rest of the journey is. There is a moment where it directly references the 2010 film The Man from Nowhere, as if to indicate to the audience that it is wanting to create a classic action experience of its own. Unfortunately, it ends up falling far short of such an aspiration.
This isn’t to say that the film is unredeemable. It just struggles to hold your attention when it needs to. It isn’t what one would call boring, especially when chaos breaks out, though the moments in between can start to drag. There is a good film in here that could be made more present if the story itself was punched up as much as the enemies are. This is unfortunate as every dynamic moment of deadly destruction is undercut by ones that are ultimately uneventful. For every explosive moment, there are multiple others that not only don’t pack the same energy but end up feeling woefully draining. All the investment it puts into the twists and turns is without any greater emotional weight because of this almost timid sense of storytelling. All the audacious and anarchic action becomes tempered by this, an unnecessary misstep that the film still pays dearly for. By the time it all reaches a conclusion, you’ll remember the solid action scenes the film did fully execute and not much else.