“Cold Eyes” is a pure exercise in thriller and professionalism. It is a taut, efficient work not wasting any minute throughout its 2-hour running time, and we are entertained by its main characters defined and driven by their professionalism. Everything we need to know about them for the story is mostly presented through how they do their jobs, and most of them are smart and resourceful enough to be the competent players of their crafts. In their intense battle of wits, a trivial thing noticed in one situation can be a crucial chance for reversal in the other circumstance later, and, like many good thrillers, that makes us constantly anxious about what will happen next.
The movie draws our attention from the beginning with its terrific opening sequence introducing its main characters as also subtly signaling to us that something is going on under the surface. We initially see a young woman in the subway who seems to be on some clandestine mission, and we also notice an ordinary-looking middle-aged man in the same subway car. Both are very watchful about their surroundings, but they are also very, very careful about being not noticed by others – and each other, perhaps.
Keeping the distance between themselves, they do not directly talk or interact with each other at all during this long sequence, but the movie lets us grasp step by step what is really going on between them while a bank robbery plan is expertly executed second by second at the place not so far from their location. There is a cool, calculating mastermind behind this robbery, and we observe him overseeing his henchmen from above while meticulously monitoring the situation outside the bank building. His henchmen do exactly as planned under his careful direction, and everything goes well for them except one small but problematic delay – but all of them successfully escape from the scene in the end thanks to his well-prepared plan.
It is the latest task of Chief Hwang(Seol Kyeong-gu) and his unit in the special department of the Seoul police to track down and arrest these professional criminals. The department is hidden somewhere within the downtown area of Seoul with an appropriate cover for their workplace, and they do not wear uniform often because they must not reveal their unofficial operations to normal citizens(one of police officers jokingly said at one point that they can only wear it when attending their colleague’s funeral).
Aided by the high-tech equipments available to them, Chief Hwang and his unit and others at the department patiently scan over the crime scene to find their culprits. While it is no surprise to us nowadays, it is still rather frightening to see in the movie how our daily life in public can be easily spotted and then monitored through advanced modern technology. Even with only one minor credit card payment, they can immediately get an approximate daily activity zone of yours through your credit card record, and, if you are not as good as the characters in the movie, they will soon locate you within a few hours through many video cameras placed around the streets and alleys of Seoul.
Hwang’s unit members, including a rookie officer named Ha Yoon-joo(Han Hyo-joo), are deft followers/disguisers, and many suspenseful moments in the film involve with how they keep their heads down while never losing the targets on their sight. They fortunately get one lead at the start, but they are well aware of that a brief glance or a casual word can ruin the whole operation, so they must be careful in every step of their maneuvers.
Intensely focusing on their work process, the movie throws some interesting ethical perspectives into the plot. While fully understanding what should be done for their assigned work, Chief Hwang clearly sees the gray morality from what he and his people are capable of as shadowy public servants monitoring the city in the name of law & order. He admits that they may infringe upon the civil rights of the people they should protect and serve, but he and his people choose to stick to what they are doing right now while never looking back, for that is probably the only way they can deal with many morally difficult situations such as when they are ordered not to blow their cover even though they see two people in a dire danger nearby.
The man they are chasing after also never looks back in his work. As soon as his latest work is done, he receives the payment along with another job to do from a seemingly old, humble shoemaker whose cold eyes betrays a ruthless criminal boss hiding behind his shabby appearance. They seldom discuss about their nameless powerful clients, but they know well about what their clients want through what they are requested to do(in one case, they steal a bunch of account books instead of money), and they do not care as long as they get paid well.
As Chief Hwang and his unit getting closer to this criminal organization, the directors Kim Beyong-seo and Jo Eui-Seok keep the tension being accumulated along the plot, and they never step back. They skillfully manipulate the level of suspense with patient shadowings, quick moves, and small nice moments of humor, and they always make the movements on the screen clear to us even when their movie becomes quite busy with many characters respectively operating around one area. They also make good use of the streets and alleys and buildings of Seoul, and that gives a nice realistic touch to the movie while providing the canvass for its slick visual approach to the story.
The actors are well-cast, and they do more than filling their archetype roles. They are unassuming as required, but their good performances reveal the interesting sides of their characters even when they are coolly occupied with their works. Seol Kyeong-gu, who has been recently mired in several disappointing films despite his talent, gives a solid performance as a tenacious chief dedicated to his work and his people, and Jeong Woo-seong is effective as his formidable match who may win their deadly cat-and-mouse game through his brain and body.
Between her two co-actors, Han Hyo-joo is lovely and feisty as a rookie with prodigious visual memory, and one of the best moments in the film is the smooth visual presentation of how she recalls and looks around every detail spotted in her surveillance work. Although we do not see a lot about Yoon-joo’s private life except one brief scene at her home, Han Hyo-joo is an engaging actress to watch, and her character is a smart and strong character to observe; even at the most frustrating moment, Yoon-joo can quickly recover her strength as soon as she spots a chance, and the climax sequence in the third act reminded me that good thriller films are driven by characters rather than actions. The movie has an excellent action sequence, and I must say this is a rare moment where the police in the movie chase down the culprits through a clever plan instead of mindlessly driving after them(and they actually consider public safety, by the way).
The other characters in the movie are mostly defined by their appearances and their behaviors, but the screenplay by Jo Eui-seok gives considerable space to some of them. Lee Jun-ho is likable as one of Chief Hwang’s unit members, and you will be amused by how appropriate his code name is considering his agility. As the strict head of department, Jin Kyeong is both commanding and caring; while she rarely loses her cool façade in front of others, one small detail implies how many times she has been frustrated with her superiors while trying to do her job, and her small private scene with Seol Kyeong-gu shows us two seasoned public servants who have seen and experienced lots of unpleasant things together for many years. The movie wisely does not force them into an unnecessary romantic relationship, so they are just presented as the close colleagues sharing the deep understanding of the nature of their work.
“Cold Eyes”, which is released as “Watchers” in South Korea today, is the remake of Hong Kong thriller film “Eye in the Sky”(2007) produced by Johnnie To, and there is a small nod to that film around its ending. I have not watched “Eye in the Sky” yet, so I cannot tell whether the remake is as good as the original, but I can say that, like Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed”(2006), “Cold Eyes” is a very good remake which can stand on its own with style and substance. Like its characters, the movie does its job well, and the result is an unexpectedly splendid genre piece deserving to be mentioned at the end of this year.