South Korean film “The Merciless” is another South Korean gangster film which is as brutal and violent as you can expect. While it is not entirely without sense of humor and there is some interesting subtext glimpsed from its two main characters’ strained relationship, the movie does not fully develop its potentials enough to transcend its genre conventions, and it eventually becomes less engaging as its plot and characters become more predictable as demanded by its genre conventions.
During its first half, the movie goes back and forth between two different time points for gradually revealing what is going on between its two main characters. Jae-ho (Sul Kyung-gu) is a high-ranking member of a powerful criminal organization in Busan, but he was serving some time in a prison three years ago, and that was where he met Hyeon-soo (Im Si-wan). While he looks like a mere young inmate at first, Hyeon-soo shows his brash toughness to other inmates right from the start, and that surely impresses Jae-ho a lot.
While being under Jae-ho’s protection after that, Hyeon-soo comes to work for Jae-ho, and we see how Jae-ho has held considerable power over other prisoners through his exclusive distribution of cigarettes in the prison. When Jae-ho’s position is threatened by the appearance of another prominent criminal figure, Hyeon-soo earns Jae-ho’s trust as not only saving Jae-ho’s life but also providing a good idea for solving his imminent problem, and we subsequently get one cringe-inducing moment when Jae-ho executes his ruthless revenge upon his defeated opponent.
Not long after Jae-ho is released, Hyeon-soo also comes out of the prison, and he is wholeheartedly welcomed by Jae-ho, who is already ready to bring Hyeon-soo to his criminal organization. They soon meet Jae-ho’s boss Byeong-cheol (Lee Kyeong-yeong) and Byeong-cheol’s nephew Byeong-gap (Kim Hee-won), and it looks like Hyeon-soo is going to rise up quickly in their underworld under Jae-ho’s guidance.
However, there is something Hyeon-soo is hiding for several years. As a matter of fact, he is a member of a police investigation team which has focused on Byeong-cheol’s criminal organization, and the movie shows us how he was persuaded to do this difficult and dangerous job by his superior, who gives him an offer he cannot possibly refuse.
So far, everything has gone well for Hyeon-soo as planned, but then, not so surprisingly, the circumstance turns out to be a lot more complicated as more things between Hyeon-soo and Jae-ho are revealed to us. When Hyeon-soo is emotionally devastated due to a certain incident at one point, Jae-ho shows him unexpected kindness, and that actually touches Hyeon-soo. As getting more involved with Jae-ho, Hyeon-soo seems to be more conflicted than before, and this prompts his superior to do something quite drastic later for reminding him of what he should do as soon as possible.
Now the movie will remind you of many similar films including “Internal Affairs” (2002) and “New World” (2013). The screenplay by director Byun Sung-hyun cheerfully plays with its plot and characters at times, and there are a good number of humorous moments to entertain you. I chuckled during one brief scene accompanied with a silly commercial for the front company of Jae-ho’s criminal organization, and I also liked how the movie pulls off a nice surprise around the end of the opening conversation scene.
Like many South Korean gangster films, the movie serves us with several striking violent moments. In case of a particular action sequence in the middle of the film, it begins with one sudden act of violence and then eventually culminates to an impressive moment of physical action. As far as I could see, it looks like the actors in this sequence really put themselves into actions unfolded on the screen, and that certainly brings more visceral quality to this sequence.
However, while I was impressed by the slick technical aspects of the movie, I became distant to its plot and character especially during its last act, which feels relatively flat and trite compared to the rest of the film. Many characters in the film are mostly broad caricatures we do not care much about, and I was also bothered by how the movie thoughtlessly handles its few substantial female characters including Hyeon-soo’s superior.
The performers in the film do as much as they can with their respective roles. As the most interesting character in the film, Sul Kyung-gu has a good number of juicy moments to play, and he definitely brings considerable energy into the film whenever he appears on the screen. As his counterpart, Im Si-wan is naturally less colorful in comparison, but he is mostly adequate in his role, and I was occasionally amused by the homoerotic undertone between his character and Sul’s character, which is wryly conveyed via a few brief private moments between them. In case of the supporting performers in the film, Lee Kyeong-yeong and Kim Hee-won are as sleazy and duplicitous as required, and Jeon Hye-jin is unfortunately stuck with her underdeveloped role while not having many things to do except looking stern or exasperated.
While it is a competent genre piece, “The Merciless” does not bring anything particularly new to its genre field. You will probably enjoy it more than I did if you are not exposed much to its genre, but there are more enjoyable South Korean gangster films out there (“Nameless Gangster” (2012) is still the best of the bunch in my inconsequential opinion), and I would rather recommend them first instead of this film. It is indeed merciless, but, folks, I have already seen it many times before, and I am not that interested.