Imagine “Stand By Me,” combined with “Four Brothers,” and a hint of “The Warriors,” and what you’ll get is “City of Violence,” a stunning send-up of seventies actioners that makes no bones about its attitude. It doesn’t take itself seriously, and its never too sentimental, but the relationships are felt, and that invokes enough incentive to care about the characters involved in the plot. Ryoo’s action thriller is a fantastic piece of Korean cinema that combines themes of friendship, betrayal, and family into a beautiful piece of gangster action. Tae-Su, an officer, emerges back into his home town after his best friend Wang Jae is killed in a back alley.
Tae-Su finds himself re-connecting with his three childhood friends, and suddenly he finds himself anxious to uncover the mysterious occurrences behind his death. Little does he know the hotheaded Seok-hwan is also on the mystery and now they must team up to unravel what happened to him. Ryoo’s film is filled with gripping emotions and a peak into the childhood friends’ complicated lives and their unity being broken as life set them apart, and leads the way for a mystery that will keep viewers in their seats. Within the mystery are some of the best action sequences I’ve seen in a while with both Tae-Su and Seok-hwan fending off assassins, and teaming to fight off a large mob of gangs as they manage to get closer and closer. While the story of the friends doesn’t come off as emotionally resonant as you’d think, Ryoo packs in enough characterization and tight story to explore how time can break even the closest friendships.
Teamed with it is utterly wonderful choreography and eye catching fight scenes in the grand scale including the two friends against an endless horde of gangs, and the epic climax in a casino. Ryoo’s film has its eye on the right place, it’s devoted to exploiting the old devices of the seventies including the close-up, and dramatic pans, all of which harken back to the grind house age. “The City of Violence” is a brutal meshing of the mob genre, with revenge, and the closer the two get to the catch, the harder and more violent their world becomes, even as they realize they’re pitted against a world of young people that they can’t possibly keep up with. The performances and dichotomy between Doo-hong Jung as the more focused and adjusted individual, while Ryoo is the more hotheaded counterpart works to the story’s advantage.
All of these men who were once friends were complete fuck ups and the only time they find themselves focused and steady, is in this act of vengeance that brings them deeper than they ever imagined. Ryoo’s action scenes are filmed well enough to drown us in the barrage of rapid fire kicks and flips, and he fills the screen with sheer carnage even conducting a knife fight that takes place in a cramped series of rooms. To say I flipped for “The City of Violence” would be a relative understatement. In the end the whole tale of brother against brother, and betrayal and the death of a loved one would have been much more gripping and painful had Ryoo taken enough time to focus on the friends and their relationships with one another.
While he does give us a sense of it through two long sequences involving them defending one another in a big fight, we never really get the sense that either of them felt like unofficial brothers who were there with one another through thick and thin, and that’s a missed opportunity if there ever was one. Ryoo has the audience in his hands with the tight action and he misses the mark when he fails to create much more complex characters we’re witnessing in this struggle for their souls and their honor. With enough focus and time spent, “The City of Violence” would have been a wrenching film. Ryoo’s gangster revenge thriller is a pure show with a tight story, great acting, and fantastic action scenes you can’t miss. “The City of Violence” is a grade A action movie and I had a blast.