“Shiri” is a thoroughly awful Korean production which vainly attempts to recast the slam-bang conventions of American action-adventure flicks into the sticky world of contemporary Korean politics. Reportedly the highest-grossing film among Korean moviegoers, its belated U.S. release will leave American audiences wondering about the sense and tastes of their Korean counterparts.
“Shiri” begins with news of the cautious baby-step unification movements being made between the governments of North and South Korea. It seems a renegade group of North Korean terrorists lead by an incredibly glamourous sniper named Hee (Kim Yun-Jin) is trying to wreck the peaceful reunion by running about Seoul and killing people. Two agents from Korea’s answer to the CIA, Lee (Song Kang-Ho) and Ryu (Han Suk-Gyu), are assigned to track down Hee and her band of not-so-merry men. Unfortunately, the agents are constantly one step behind the terrorists and the good-guy-spies believe there is a leak in their spook factory who is tipping off the North Korean nasties.
It would seem that filmmaker Kang Je-Gyu overdosed on endless Stallone/Schwarzenegger/Van Damme capers and decided to pack his production with as much noise and mayhem as possible. “Shiri” is polluted with an excess of gunfire, gallons of squirting blood, and enough explosions to melt the polar caps. And, of course, there is the inevitable slow-mo shot of the two heroes running for their lives and diving through the air while a massive fireball exploded behind them.
Yet “Shiri” is thoroughly lacking in any human element whatsoever to cushion the chaos. Whereas American action flicks can have the silly interactions between Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the “Lethal Weapon” series or Bruce Willis’ snide wisecracks in the “Die Hard” films or even Schwarzenegger’s stoic deadpan quips, “Shiri” has absolutely no humor whatsoever and the carefully choreographed mayhem becomes increasingly numbing with each new boom. Everyone is pretty much deadpan and deadly serious here, and the very few vain attempts at levity (agent Ryu’s supposed dislike of music, a not-so-smart spy being scared by a rubber snake) are yawn-inspiring. Even the villains can’t save the movie. The North Korean terrorists have a ridiculously endless supply of costumes, weapons and disguises; it almost seems like they’re getting their inspiration from Bugs Bunny rather than Kim Jong-Il. There is also a desultory love angle between agent Lee and a pretty lady who runs a pet fish emporium, but that is inserted occasionally to no particular effect.
The film is not helped by the fact the cast is thoroughly lacking in personality or charisma. As the diabolical Hee, Kim Yun-Jin runs about with a pouty sneer that makes her seem more like a grumbling showgirl than a lethal terrorist; if her make-up is any indication, it would seem that North Korea has an extraordinary stockpile of Revlon lip-gloss and Shiseido mascara. Song Kang-Ho and Han Suk-Gyu are supposedly the dashing day-savers, but their wooden performances make them the least interesting film heroes this side of Casper Van Dien. The film is curiously overstocked with dozens of fishes swimming about in various tanks, and it is a sad commentary when the fish give better performances than the actors.
One word of warning for those unfortunate enough to see this film: “Shiri” contains a sequence when a glass skyscraper is turned into a shattering inferno by a bomb. The explosion is punctuated by having burning people fall from the fiery hell into the streets below. For anyone who is still traumatize by the events of September 11, this sequence (which is not essential to the ebb and flow of the film) is horrendous to view. Shame on the film’s U.S. distributor for not having the intelligence and tact to excise it from the American prints.