Anyone mourning the fact that Liam Neeson has apparently decided not to prolong the “Taken” franchise—and willing to read subtitles—might take a chance on “Unstoppable,” a sort of South Korean counterpart. Though it adds a dose of comedy to the mix, it’s basically the same story of a guy determined to rescue a person he loves from a bunch of nasty bad guys, and capable of using a great deal of force to do so.
If Neeson seemed an unlikely action hero at first, so does Ma Dong-seok (billed as Don Lee), the big, beefy bear of a man who plays the hero Dong-Chul. Though known as a bruiser in his earlier years, Dong-Chul’s settled down to a life of meek domesticity with his wife Ji-Soo (Song Ji-hyo), and with his goofy closest pal Chun-sik (Park Ji-hwan) he’s involved in a fish-mongering business.
The first half-hour of the movie is devoted to a comic dispute between husband and wife over Dong-Chul’s investment in a shipment of king crabs; frankly it seems to go on forever. But as a result of a fender-bender they catch the eye of evil Ki-Tae (a maniacal Kim Seong-oh), a snarling crook with a lucrative business in human trafficking, and the tone suddenly changes.
Ki-Tae’s system is fairly simple, if also rather implausible: when he sees a woman he thinks will fetch a high price, he simply abducts her, and then bribes her husband (or father, presumably) to accept her loss. Additional forms of persuasion can be applied if necessary.
Ki-Tae thinks that Ji-Soo is eminently saleable, and so kidnaps her, leaving Dong-Chui a suitcase of cash as a replacement. But he’s unwilling to accept the trade, going to the police instead. They’re not terribly helpful—all they really do is take the case (and the money) as evidence—and so it’s up to Dong-Chui, aided by his pal Chun-sik and an equally bumbling investigator named Kwon (Kim Min-jae)—the two serve as comic relief—to track down the villains on his own.
The precise trajectory of the search is pretty convoluted, with some twists that don’t make a lot of sense. But it allows for a succession of action scenes in which Ma Dong-seok (or Lee, if you prefer) can show his ability to toss guys around fairly nimbly (so much so that a few burly foes, seeing him do so, simply decline to engage). There are two episodes involving a retrieval of money—one involving Dong-Chul and the fellow who sold him those crabs, played mostly for thrills, and the other involving his two pals and the cops from whom they want to get back that suitcase of cash, played mostly for laughs.
Of course, as the movie rolls on, the battles become more brutal. Dong-Chul’s final face-offs, the first with some of Ki-Tae’s most able goons and the confrontation with the boss himself—a ferocious car chase followed by a savage one-on-one—leave little to the imagination. It cannot be said, though, that either here or elsewhere the choreography of the fight scenes shows anything new; the action sequences are respectable without being distinctive, and at times they’re even oddly prosaic.
The same can be said of the periodic insertion of scenes of Ji-Soo being threatened by her captors. For the most part these feel truly nasty and unsettling. They seem out of character with the rest of the picture, moving from merely unpleasant to genuinely repulsive.
But if one comes down to it, the “Taken” movies were pretty grubby too, so “Unstoppable” follows in their footsteps closely in that respect as well. For some that won’t matter, but it means that Kim Min-ho’s feature debut doesn’t match the best South Korean action movies in either substance or style.