Movie Review: Cold Eyes

On Sunday, March 16, 2014, I attended a screening of Cold Eyes at the Castro Theatre in San Francisco as part of this year's CAAMFest (The Center for Asian American Media Film Festival). Cold Eyes is a thriller written and directed by Cho Ui-Seok, co-directed by Kim Byung-Seo, and starring Han Hyo-Ju, Seol Kyung-Gu, Lee Jun-Ho (aka Junho from 2PM), and my personal favorite, Jung Woo-Sung. It was billed as a remake of a Hong Kong film called Eye In The Sky, but having never seen Eye In The Sky, I am unable to comment on its similarities or differences. Also, I admit that I was there almost exclusively for Jung Woo-Sung (who once again did not disappoint), but the movie itself turned out to be a tense and tightly paced thrill ride that my companions and I all quite enjoyed. What is more, the grandeur of the Castro movie palace's full-sized screen — so rare in today’s era of multiplexes — was a special treat for watching such a visually exciting film. Thank you so much to CAAMFest for bringing Cold Eyes to San Francisco, and a special thanks to the Castro for the venue!

Cold Eyes starts out in the subway, with three seemingly unrelated individuals going about their business. Jung Woo-Sung plays Sudoku with a fancy fountain pen before taking a call from someone who wishes to place an order from “National Food Market”; Seol Kyung-Gu dozes off with a newspaper in his lap; and Han Hyo-Ju stands nonchalantly by the door in a voluminous hoodie, but seems a little more than just casually interested in Seol Kyung-Gu’s character.
Indeed, when Seol gets off the train, Han follows him for quite some time. He attempts several maneuvers that seem designed to shake a tail, but eventually he ends up eating lunch in a fast-food restaurant, while Han eats her own food a few tables away. Then suddenly, Seol confronts her, but before she can run away, he reveals himself to be the Chief Detective of the police surveillance unit. Apparently, Han had been taking some sort of a test all this time, though she clearly hadn’t realized her target was also her evaluator. Seol quizzes her on everything she has seen, which she is able to recount with incredible precision, including his exact route and timeline, the approximate heights, builds, and clothing of everyone he had contact with, and the number of minutes he spent on his cell phone. Han’s skills of observation and recall earn her a spot on Seol’s team, which has just received their newest assignment: catching a team of bank robbers.
While Seol was administering Han’s employment exam, Jung Woo-sung was robbing the bank. He is the leader of his own team, and watches with a rifle scope from the roof of a nearby building while his lackeys execute his precisely timed plan, counting each second by the resonant ticks of his analogue stopwatch and monitoring both their internal communications and those of the police using the fancy listening equipment he carries in his classic leather briefcase. (Which he hooks up to a flip phone. Ha!)
When the robbery is complete, the entire team escapes just ahead of the police, thanks to a semi truck that Jung signals to jackknife across four lanes of traffic at just the right moment, allowing the criminal's van to squeak by but causing all the police cars on their tail to fly spectacularly into the trailer. The semi driver disappears on foot into a CCTV blind spot, while Jung packs up his briefcase and calmly walks away. He’s such a ghost that the police don’t realize he’s even there at first, assuming that the six men they see in the bank and in the getaway cars comprise the entire team. His character is billed as “James” in the film’s promotional materials, but I can’t remember ever hearing that name in the dialogue or seeing it in the subtitles, so from now on I will call him the Shadow, which is the nickname he’s assigned by the police once they eventually figure out he exists. That night the Shadow goes to an old man running a cupboard-sized shoe-shine shop and, using a hidden window in the back of the store to pass his car keys back and forth, he delivers a portion of the bank proceeds, then leaves with the assignment for his next job.
The next day, Han meets the rest of her team, all of whom have animal code names: Seol is the Falcon, Junho is the Squirrel, and the rest of the team are the Viper, the Mole, the Parrot, and the Ostrich. Han asks to be the Reindeer, but she is anointed “Piglet" instead. With a bit of luck, the electronic surveillance team, led by Director Lee (actress Jin Kyung), has identified the semi driver from the robbery, whom they nickname the Thirsty Hippo, and it’s the menagerie’s job to track him down. But he proves an elusive target, showing up only occasionally, at the very edge of the CCTV ranges, and always walking straight into another blind spot.
Over the next several weeks, while the Shadow plans and executes the heist of some sensitive and potentially incriminating financial records from a high-security corporate storage facility, Piglet gets to know her teammates and their methods. They systematically deploy in each numbered grid of the city, first to identify possible matches, then to get close enough for face-to-face confirmation. Each member of the team has his or her own strengths and weaknesses, and the Falcon coordinates them all from a van using cellophane grid maps and little wooden animal figurines that look like demented chess pieces.
Throughout the film, the director uses a lot of hand-held camera work — reminding me strongly of the Bourne movies — which makes you feel almost as if you are right next to the characters as they follow, surveil, and chase. They even recreated one of the more memorable stunts from The Bourne Ultimatum when the Shadow leaps through a window, then the Falcon jumps out after him a moment later. Like in Bourne, the camera follows the Falcon the whole way out. But Cold Eyes takes the stunt a step further, keeping the camera with him even as he tumbles and rolls along on the ground, making me and at least one other member of the audience wonder how on Earth it was accomplished. (The other guy asked the director about it during the post-screening Q&A, but somewhere along the line his question was lost in translation so we never got the real answer.) Such visual intimacy occasionally also felt disorienting, but for the most part it was highly effective in drawing me in and ratcheting up the tension, to the point where I was literally on the edge of my seat for much of the film.
Cold Eyes was similarly reminiscent of Enemy of the State (a 1998 chase thriller starring Will Smith), for its almost pornographic depiction of surveillance technology, including real-time CCTV footage and near-instant morphology-matching software. But while Enemy of the State's technology was omnipotent, near-infallible, and frenetically paced, Cold Eyes focused more on its feet on the ground than on its eyes in the sky: The bulk of its runtime was taken up by depictions of stakeouts, grid searches, and extended, elaborate scenes of characters being followed. In fact, it would probably be easy to lose a modern audience during some of these more old-school spy sequences, but the spycraft scenes in Cold Eyes are so dynamically choreographed and its plot is so expertly crafted that we were never allowed to relax for long.
I was also reminded a bit of Drive (2011, starring Ryan Gosling), in that the overarching story was occasionally punctuated by sudden bursts of violence so extreme that I inadvertently hid my eyes from the screen several times.
If you are easily offended by cinematic glamorization of crime, violence, or law enforcement, then Cold Eyes clearly is not the film for you. But if you’re the type of person who won’t notice, won’t care, or else won’t let that ruin your enjoyment of crime thrillers in general, you will certainly find Cold Eyes to be one of the better-crafted examples of the genre. In particular, I was impressed with how rarely the narrative lost focus, how thoroughly it invested me in its characters, and how few plot holes I noticed. I would have appreciated some more details about the “National Foods Market” cover used by the Shadow when he wasn’t robbing banks, which we got to see but I never quite understood. Also, I did take particular exception to one glaring character inconsistency and its improbable resolution near the end, and a photo in the epilogue that I couldn't reconcile with the preceding events. But for an action movie with a 118-minute runtime, that’s a very impressive record.
Due to the nature of its genre, Cold Eyes offered little in the way of character development, so none of its actors were given the opportunity to display the kind of rounded performances that win awards. But they all delivered solid work that gave the film exactly what it required. The Falcon and Director Lee both provided the perfect mixture of authority, experience, and humanity, while the CAAMFest MC singled out Han Hyo-Ju in particular for her performance as the Piglet. The Piglet was the clear star of this film, and Han shouldered the responsibility with confidence, portraying her character with toughness, heart, and razor-sharp intelligence. But I was most pleasantly surprised by Junho as the Squirrel. In spite of the high billing he received on some of the promotional materials, and the fact that he got more screen time than the rest of the menagerie (aside from Piglet and Falcon), Junho’s Squirrel is not a huge role. Yet what little is there is written and acted so likably that it came as a genuine shock to me about 3/4 of the way through the film when a sudden threat made me realize how emotionally invested in him I had become. One of my companions was a 2PM fan going in to the movie, but even she had to admit that she never expected Junho to be as good as he was!
And Jung Woo-Sung? As I already started to suspect when I first fell in love with him in Padam Padam…, Woo-Sung is consistently captivating. Cold Eyes represents a significant departure for him in that it was his first time playing a villain. That, combined with the fact that, despite his extensive screen time, he had very little dialogue, meant that his role was much more one-dimensional than I’m used to from him. But even behind his coldly precise demeanor and cyborg haircut, the exquisite facial expressions that make him such a dynamic dramatic actor managed to crack his facade at just the right moments. The Shadow proved to be quite an effective killer as well, giving Woo-Sung the chance to show off his action-star credentials. First he turns the tables on a would-be assassin sent by his “boss” to teach him a lesson, then he dispatches a growing body count of individual threats, including civilians, fellow criminals, and police, all with brilliant, brutal efficiency.
And though they may have been limited, the glimpses we got to see of his character's psyche were compelling. I was particularly struck by the parallels between the Shadow and the Piglet. While the Shadow was Piglet's opposite in gender, experience, and empathy, they were also in a way two sides of the same coin: both were astute, disciplined observers who excelled at disappearing into their work. Yet while the Piglet was mentored by the Falcon with compassion and humor, the Shadow's boss/mentor was utterly ruthless. Not only did he try to kill the Shadow twice (that we saw), but during the one scene in which we were treated to the delight that is Jung Woo-Sung without his shirt on, we also clearly saw the extensive scars of torture criss-crossing his back. I couldn't help but wonder how the Shadow's path might have diverged if he had met a different mentor back when he was the Piglet's age. Similarly, the Shadow and the Falcon are both the experienced, meticulous leaders of their respective teams, who observe and coordinate from their personal perches (the Shadow from his rooftops and the Falcon from his van), making for an interesting parallel between their two characters as well.
I was genuinely convinced that it was these nuances in his character and the charisma of his performance that made me secretly root for the Shadow the whole movie, and not just my unabashed bias for Jung Woo-Sung, but the unanimous disagreement of my companions put paid to my delusion. I do feel compelled to point out, however, that empathizing with the villain, in spite of his villainy, imbued the story with even greater stakes for me: Every confrontation was an exquisite torment as I yearned for the Shadow to acquire his targets, to escape, and to build himself a new life away from all the crime and violence, yet remained equally anxious for the good guys to triumph, and, most of all, to be safe.

With or without a massive Jung Woo-Sung bias, Cold Eyes was an excellently crafted piece of cinema. It wasn't completely flawless, but it was certainly well above average for its genre, earning five stars out of five from everyone in my party. If you ever get a chance to see it, especially in a theatre, drop everything and run!

Seriously, run fast. The Shadow is watching...

*Picture credits to the owners.