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By Jeff Wong | October 22, 2007

There was a point during the first fight sequence of “City of Violence” when I just had to admit to myself that this was the best Hong Kong action movie I had seen all year. The problem with that admission is that “City of Violence” is a movie from South Korea. Bleeding with all sorts of references from ’70s and ’80s action films, Director Ryoo Seung-Wan has breathed new life into the Martial Arts genre, by simply concentrating on, and often stealing, what has worked before.

Writers Lee Won-Jae and Kim Jeong-Min have crafted a very simple crime story here. Detective Tae-Su (played by fight choreographer Jung Doo-Hong) finds himself taking a break from his day-to-day life of dressing like Charles Bronson, and processing gangsters, to return to his hometown to attend a funeral for a childhood friend. Suspecting that their friend’s death was not as simple as they were led to believe, (are they ever?) Tae-Su and his friend Seok-Hwan (director Ryoo Seung-Wan) decide to investigate, and in doing so end up going to war with the city’s criminal outfits.

Ryoo Seung-Wan utilizes every one of his influences in this movie. He also borrows some of yours as well. The score comes straight out of a Western, complete with a horn section. The set pieces are built to stage long fight sequences, the same way Jackie Chan (long before he would be annoyed by Chris Tucker) would utilize his sets in the 80’s. I don’t know of very many two-story restaurants, where the entire second story is situated along a balcony, but they sure do appear often in martial arts films. Seung-Wan uses a lot of camera zooms a la Sam Peckinpah, and he developed a sequence where the two main characters fight an entire mob of street gangs. This sequence even went so far as to have themed gangs, one in particular wearing baseball uniforms and sporting face paint. The team name across the uniforms? The Warriors.

One of the greatest elements of the action in this film, is the fact that little-to-no wire work is utilized. The martial arts genre has steadily become lousy with wire work, and here, it is tossed out completely. This makes the fighting in this film seem grounded in some sort of reality. It is not as compact or economical as something you would see in “The Bourne Identity.” It is still highly stylized, however, it never ventures into the realm of cartoon and still keeps its brutality intact. This adds a grittiness that has been lost in the medium over the past few years.

Whenever you have a Martial Arts film set in modern days you always have to deal with firearms in some fashion. Ryoo Seung-Wan’s approach to this is quite genius. He just doesn’t address them at all. I think there is one gun in the movie, and it almost looks like it was there accidentially. It wasn’t until I started writing this, that I even thought about the lack of guns in the “City of Violence.”

Dragon Dynasty has done a tremendous job in packaging this DVD. On the main disc there is a director commentary, where he will discuss specifically where he was drawing influence from at any particular sequence. So as I was calling out all of the scenes where he was ripping someone else off, he was doing the exact same thing on his commentary track. The bonus disc contains a series of documentaries and interviews, all worth while and all subtitled fairly well. One of my favorite featurettes is a breakdown of the action sequences with commentary from the action choreographer.

Though it seems like “City of Violence” is just one rip-off, er… homage after another, all of this comes together to create a very kinetic, very enjoyable action film. The final fight sequence alone is better than almost any martial arts film that has come out in the last year. Hopefully, filmmakers will take note. There is a lot to be learned about making Hong Kong Action films, from the folks in South Korea.

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