The hero isn’t the only relentless thing about “Tube,” a check-your-brains-at-the-door, almost non-stop actioner that finally wins the viewer over with its sheer single-mindedness. A high-tech cross between “Speed” and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” with a mad terrorist hijacking a booby-trapped train on the Seoul subway, pic often has a lateral approach to storytelling that’s somewhere between a computer game and Asian manga comic. Already sold across the Far East, and to some territories in Europe, film has considerable potential as an ancillary item in Western markets, with some theatrical play also not out of the question.
Much-hyped movie, already delayed from its early 2003 release date by the considerable effects works, finally goes out June 5 in South Korea, where it needs to establish a toehold prior to the “Matrix” onslaught. Big budget by local standards ($6 million), it’s the first feature by Baek Woon-hak, co-writer and assistant director on “Shiri” with extensive experience producing TV commercials.
First half-hour is a tad oblique, to say the least, in setting up the characters and background. In its one major miscalculation, film starts with a flashy shootout at Gimpo Airport which leaves the audience at a total loss as to what’s going on, apart from the fact that a bad guy gets away from a maverick young cop and hoards of SWAT troops. Lack of any backgrounding continues as a young woman who has a crush on the cop is also introduced.
The mists start to clear in the second reel as the girl is intro’ed as Kay (offbeat looker Bae Du-na, from “Take Care of My Cat” and “Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance”), a feisty pickpocket working Seoul’s subway. She’s lifted the I.D. of the young cop, Jay (Kim Seok-hun), and engineers having their paths cross. Per flashbacks, loose-cannon Jay has been after the bad guy, T (Park Sang-min), for some time, ever since they had a rooftop showdown; and T wants payback on Jay for killing his wife.
Elements start to cohere at the half-hour mark, when Kay spots T and his sidekick in the subway, phones Jay, and the latter hurtles down on a motorbike and leaps on the train as it leaves the station. From this point on, it’s action all the way.
After T hijacks the train and sends it hurtling along at a fast speed, it turns out he’s rigged the train with a ton of explosives that will detonate if the subway authorities turn off the juice. As well as Jay and Kay and various members of the public, also on board is Seoul’s mayor with a TV crew covering his election campaign.
While Jay clambers under, over and inside the train trying to stop T, a separate battle takes place in the subway control room between military goons, Jay’s police boss and the subway controller (Son Byeong-ho) over how to deal with the situation. The government high-ups are wise to T’s hidden agenda and would like the whole incident to be hushed up forever.
Meanwhile, the runaway train has to be diverted from crashing into others as well as an unstable, half-constructed bridge and a power station at the end of the line. After the main plot climaxes at the 90-minute point (with plenty of leeway left for “Tube 2”), pic careens on for a further two reels in which the anti-establishment tone strengthens.
Movie has a very lean, pared-down style — decorated with occasional visual effects like accelerated pans — as well as an ochry, subdued look to its colors that adds to the gritty feel. Synths music by Hwang Sang-jun is almost continuous, stoking up the momentum.
In place of real character development, script comes up with a continuous number of new crises that are cleverly negotiated. And in line with its manga-like flavor, the action and fight scenes substitute hard physicality for actual believability.
One of South Korea’s most charismatic actresses, big-eyed Bae makes an offbeat female lead, part punk kid, part Cinderella figure. Kim goes through the motions as the maverick cop but is outclassed on screen by Park as the ruthless, always-in-control T.
Effects work is fine without being super-slick, managing to hold attention during long spans even when it’s obvious that what’s happening on screen is pure hokum. English subtitles simplify the main characters’ names: For the record, T’s proper moniker is Kang Gi-taek, while Jay and Kay are Det. Jang and Song In-gyeong.