Watching South Korean film “Illang: the Wolf Brigade” was a grim and ponderous experience. Although there are a number of well-made action sequences, the movie does not provide enough fun and interest to hold my attention despite its supposedly intriguing story premise, and I only came to observe how it solemnly trudges along its convoluted plot, about which I did not care much as feeling more confused and distant to what was shown on the screen.
During its prologue part, the movie gives us a brief explanation of its near-future background. In 2024, South and North Korea decided to be unified for their mutual political benefit and safety, so they have gone through the preparation stage for their unification for next 5 years, but this process has been riddled with problems from both inside and outside. While it is not so welcomed by several powerful countries including US and China, it is also strongly opposed by many South Koreans, and this local anti-unification movement leads to the formation of a terrorist group called “Sect”.
To fight against this terrorist group which seems quite willing to do anything for its political purpose, the South Korean police comes to launch a special unit known as Wolf Brigade. While they look heavy and ponderous in their metallic armour which may remind you of those stormtroopers in Star Wars movies, these special unit soldiers can efficiently and ruthlessly eliminate targets as ordered, and they do not even hesitate at all even when the targets to be eliminated happen to be a group of young school girls.
After that shocking moment, the movie moves forward to 5 years later. While the unification process is being near the end, the South Korean society remains unstable as before, and we see the South Korean police trying to handle another big demonstration held in the middle of Seoul. Once the situation becomes far more violent due to several Sect members, Wolf Brigade is brought into the scene, and the situation soon comes to the end as the unit members systemically wipe out a bunch of Sect members.
During that operation, Im Joong-kyung (Gang Dong-won), one of the unit members, happens to kill a girl who tries to detonate a bomb she is carrying. Although this is certainly not his first killing, it looks like something inside him is shaken by this incident, and he does not hesitate when his former colleague Han Sang-woo (Kim Mu-yeol), who has been the deputy head of the public security department since he left the unit, suggests that he should meet the older sister of that dead girl.
Her name is Lee Yoon-hee (Han Hyo-joo), and she does not show much anger or sorrow over her sister’s death because, well, life has already been hard for her since her sister joined Sect. As spending more time with Yoon-hee, Joong-kyung comes to know more about her and her dead sister, and we get a rather blatantly symbolic scene where she shows more of her feelings to him via the variation of a certain well-known fairy tale which is involved with a big bad wolf.
Meanwhile, the circumstance surrounding Joong-kyung and Yoon-hee turns out to be more complicated than it seems on the surface. While the head of the public security department wants to undermine Wolf Brigade by any means necessary, the chief of Wolf Brigade tries to protect his unit as much as he can, and it is not much of a spoiler to tell you that Joong-kyung and Yoon-hee later find themselves in a very serious danger because of this growing conflict between Wolf Brigade and the public security department.
As Joong-kyung and Yoon-hee struggle to survive this perilous circumstance of theirs, the movie gives us several technically impressive moments, and its technical crew members deserve some praises for their good efforts. I like a relentless action sequence unfolded in and around the Namsan Tower in Seoul, and I also appreciated the palpably gloomy atmosphere surrounding the characters in the film, which is effectively established from the start thanks to cinematographer Lee Mo-gae.
However, the movie failed to engage me mainly due to its deficient narrative and weak characterization. It is often too murky and disorienting in its uneven narrative, and most of its characters are more or less than colorless plot elements to be moved along its plot. In addition, it fails to generate any tangible sense of emotional connection between Joong-kyung and Yoon-hee, and that is why its melodramatic ending does not work at all.
Kang Dong-won surely tries very hard in his decidedly stoic performance, but, alas, his character is flat and uninteresting from the beginning, and there is not much to do for him except looking intense and ambiguous. As a result, we cannot feel much of his presence when he later goes into a full action mode while fully wearing that metallic armour, and it is really monotonous to watch him mechanically eliminating his numerous opponents one by one during that sequence.
As another main part of the movie, Han Hyo-joo, who was fantastic as the strong heroine of “Cold Eyes” (2013), is woefully under-utilized here, and the same thing can be said about other notable supporting performers in the film. While Kim Mu-yeol looks as treacherous as required, Jung Woo-sung looks as brooding as demanded, and Han Ye-ri manages to bring some spirit and personality to her small supporting role.
In conclusion, “Illang: the Wolf Brigade” is a major letdown compared to director Kim Ji-woon’s notable works such as “A Tale of Two Sisters” (2003), “The Good, the Bad, the Weird” (2008), and “The Age of Shadows” (2016). I was quite disappointed as not getting much fun during my viewing, and I must confess that the movie was quickly faded away from my mind as I subsequently watched “Mission: Impossible – Fallout” (2018), which is a far better action film in my trivial opinion.
Oh, by the way, the movie is in fact a live-action adaptation of Mamoru Oshii’s acclaimed animated film “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade” (1999). I have not watched Oshii’s animated film yet, but now I am very willing to check it out for comparison, and I will probably get more fun from it considering how animated films are usually more stylish and atmospheric than live action films. Maybe you should watch it instead of its mediocre live-action movie version.