Action Hero (2021) ☆☆☆(3/4): A little goofy college action comedy

South Korean independent film “Action Hero” is a little goofy mix of action and comedy which turns out to be more likable than I expected. While I often shook up my head as observing all those silly moments generated among its mostly broad main characters, I came to care a bit about some of them at least as getting occasional good laughs during my viewing, and it did not disappoint me when it finally delivered its modest but effective action-packed climax as required.

After the deliberately ridiculous opening scene which will bring some smile to anyone familiar with those old Hong Kong martial arts action flicks, the movie moves onto its first chapter cheerfully establishing its hero’s current hopeless status. Since he became a big fan of those Hong Kong martial arts action films, Joo-seong (Lee Suk-hyung) has aspired to be an action movie performer someday, but, to his disappointment, this earnest college lad has been stuck in preparing for the civil official application examination just like many other students in his university. Besides his little martial art club where he is incidentally its only member, the only consolation in his campus life comes from a movie acting class which he always attends despite not officially being one of its students, but neither the professor nor many of other class students is not particularly impressed by his enthusiastic presentation.

At least, there is Chan-yeol (Lee Se-joon), a senior class student who is genuinely interested in making something awesome with Joo-seong. Although he does not seem that talented in my humble opinion, Chan-yeol gladly supports Joo-seong’s aspiration as showing Joo-seong a little corny old student film. Needless to say, Joo-seong wants to look as impressive as its lead actress, but, so far, Chan-yeol and Joo-seong do not have any story idea to be developed into their little future project, and we accordingly get a little wacky moment as they try to shoot their first film only with a vaguely concocted idea.

And that is when they come across a blackmail letter to be sent to the professor of their movie class. While the letter suggests that the professor has been involved with a very serious case of administration corruption, Joo-seong and Chan-yeol see a seemingly wonderful idea for their nascent movie project. They are going to investigate onto the mysterious identity of the person behind this letter, and they will certainly capture everything on their camera with Joo-seong as the righteous hero to save the day in the end.

Meanwhile, the movie also pays attention to what is going on around that professor in question, who, not so surprisingly, turns out to be as corrupt as the letter suggests. While trying to handle this unexpected emergency for herself, the professor naturally comes to suspect one of her two assistants who have actually handled all those dirty deeds on her behalf, and that leads to a hilariously serious moment between her and that assistant.

As that assistant, a senior student named Seon-ah (Lee Ju-young), tries to figure out how to solve the situation for herself as well as her boss, we get to know a bit about how things have been desperate and frustrating for her during recent years. Constantly struggling to pay off her college tuition loan, she also has to work at a campus college coffee shop, but it looks like she will be stuck in her miserable status of life forever, and her fellow assistant Jae-woo (Jang In-sub) is not much of help or consolation to her although he turns out to be as desperate as Seon-ah later in the story.

Once all of its main characters are established, the screenplay by director/writer Lee Jin-ho, who makes a feature film debut here after making a couple of short films, throws more turns and twists into its narrative, and the main source of our laughs comes from how each of its main characters struggles to figure out what the hell is going on while mired more in their increasingly complicated circumstance. In case of Joo-seong and Chan-yeol, they belatedly come to realize how serious the situation really is, but they continue to make more misjudgments and errors just like others involved in the circumstance, and that only leads to more chaos and confusion for everyone.

Rather than laughing at their misadventures, the movie regards Joo-seong and Chan-yeol with some care and affection, and the same thing can be said about Seon-ah, who comes to find that she is still as lively and feisty as she once was many years ago. Although stumbling a bit during the final act, the movie eventually delivers a climactic action sequence which turns out to be more skillful and exciting than it seemed at first, and I also like how the following ending is balanced well between hard reality and tentative optimism.

The main cast members act as straight as possible while willingly throwing themselves into lots of silliness on the screen. While Lee Suk-hyeong deserves to be commended for looking both absurd and believable during many of his action scenes in the film, Lee Ju-young provides some necessary gravitas to the story as demanded, and Kim Jae-hwa, Jang In-sub, and Lee Se-joon are also fun to watch in their respective supporting parts.

In conclusion, “Action Hero” is rather modest on the whole, but it is funny and engaging enough to be compared with “The Paper Tigers” (2020), another recent martial arts comedy action film which is also silly but entertaining in its own way. To be frank with you, I wish it went further with more action and satire, but that weakness is understandable considering its small production budget, and it is certainly another notable debut feature film of this year in South Korea.

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