A visually inspiring, dramatically inert action thriller directed by Jung Woo-sung, one of Korea’s premiere action stars (“The Good, the Bad, the Weird”), “A Man of Reason” misunderstands the retired-assassin sub-genre. Rather than spellbinding audiences with a beguiling antihero — one whose malaise teases fear — the film offers a protagonist so dull and unassuming that the film around him often struggles for any reason of its own.
And yet, “A Man of Reason,” grips you in its opening scene. Su-hyuk (Jung) is a slender blade leaning against his black BMW. After ignoring two missed calls from his girlfriend Min-seo, he descends upon the dimly lit hideout of a crime boss. Armed with a flashlight attached to a knife, he proceeds to mow them down. His blade, making the sound of paper cuts in the air, slashes through the men as swiftly as the camera that’s tracking him moves. It’s an enrapturing action sequence in a movie filled with them. But the kinetic, captivating tone disintegrates once the narrative remembers that it needs to tell us about these people.
After serving a 10-year sentence for his murderous escapade, Su-hyuk is released from prison. His old associates, now using the hotel business as a cover for their illegal dealings, wonder what kind of man the time away has turned him into. And Su-hyuk has changed: He wants to care for his young daughter In-Bi and reconnect with his former love Min-seo. He goes to his former boss, now known as the chairman, to ask for a normal life. The chairman’s sniveling underling, Kang, however, doesn’t believe in the assassin’s pursuit for absolution. Kang puts two unhinged, manic killers on Su-hyuk’s tail only for the pair to put the former hitman in a position where he must drop the nice guy act, and defend his family, if he hopes to finally get out of this terrible business.
“A Man of Reason” often resembles Nicolas Winding Refn’s “Drive.” Similar to Ryan Gosling’s stoic terminator behind a wheel, Su-hyuk doesn’t just cast a shadow as a downbeat guy navigating a world guided by toxic masculinity. He uses his car as a high-octane, fast-torquing weapon: In one rousing scene, Su-hyuk slams into a hotel lobby with his vehicle and spins would-be goons atop of it like a bumper car in a china shop. Jung’s action flick features so many of these precisely wrought confrontations, mixed with endearing action hijinks — this is the kind of movie where a man named the masseuse provides debilitating kicks to the shin — that on paper, like “Drive,” it should be endlessly entertaining and should, in some respects, even transcend the genre.
And make no mistake, Jung’s director isn’t the problem here: He pulls broad yet charged performances from his deep ensemble. The copious closeups and elegant compositions by him and DP Go Rak-sun, set against the blue and violet lighting, provides the requisite drapes to this gritty, intense world. Also, the stunt work and choreography, mixed with clipped editing gives the fight sequences a balletic form that’s become the standard in Korean genre films.
But the script to “A Man of Reason” too often relies on bare-bone archetypes over deeply etched characters. What makes Su-hyuk different from other hitmen? Is the chairman worth trusting? Apart from jealousy, what drives a man like Kang? Without more grounding the bloody, unbending rivalry between Kang and Su-hyuk, meant to propel the film, fizzles. The two, unhinged assassins similarly lack wit as broad pastiches of the Joker-Harley Quinn pairing. The title, of course, hints at these characters’ unreasonableness in the face of a changed, deliberate man, who wants nothing more than to move on. But the spirit of the title doesn’t totally paper over the shortcomings in Su-hyuk as a protagonist.
Su-hyuk hews so closely to the quiet, ruminative, man-in-black stereotype, where the fists do the talking in lieu of a blank stare, that he possesses zero panache. That’s partly because the screenplay forgets to put an aura around him. When you watch movies like “John Wick” or “Kill Bill,” the reputation of the reformed killer always precedes them. “A Man of Reason” side steps that conceit and Su-hyuk is all the more boring for it. Apart from the Chairman, everyone sees him as just a regular guy. Though some bits of fun arise from him being described merely as “a crazy dad,” a familiar humor in the genre, it subtracts from the indelible mythology of the character, rendering him generic.
After a convoluted mission to retrieve his daughter ends in gore, guts and nail gun bullets, the film ends on a whimper. Despite Su-hyuk’s desire, the audience doesn’t want him to be normal any more than his former boss does. “A Man of Reason,” even with its seductive visuals and feverish fight sequences, is too cerebral, too thin where it counts, to be memorable.
“A Man of Reason” premiered at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival. It is currently seeking U.S. distribution.