France’s hugely successful “OSS 117” retro spy parodies are joined by the rather less successful “Dachimawa Lee,” a tribute to tacky South Korean ’60s-’70s actioners that should be way more fun than it is. Slugfest specialist Ryoo Seung-wan (“No Blood No Tears,” “Arahan”) hits all the right buttons in the first half-hour but runs out of steam and ideas after an overextended midsection. Much-hyped pic performed disappointingly at home late last summer, but genre addicts can check out this curio on ancillary.
The film’s extended title (which translates to “Devil! Take the Train to Hell”) refers to a 1976 classic of the so-called hwalgeuk genre, directed by prolific action star of the period, Park No-shik. The plot, however, is completely different, and Ryoo’s slick production values are vastly superior to those of any of the actual hwalgeuk actioners, most of which look extremely tacky today.
The hero’s name, Dachimawa Lee, is Japanese-derived Korean slang for a fight in which one hoodlum takes on many. He’s played here (as in Ryoo’s larky, low-budget 2000 short of the same title) by Im Weon-heui, with a comically grandiose lack of humor that reps a Korean version of OSS 117’s lack of irony. Im’s hectoring delivery and didactic dialogue parody an age when South Korea was controlled by a moralizing military junta, and the thesp’s performance is the movie’s one consistent delight.
After a Bond-ish prologue in 1942 Moscow, involving deadly turncoat Madame Jang (Oh Ji-hye), and a jazzy main title involving lots of split screen and Lalo Schifrin-like music, pint-sized super-agent Lee (Im) improbably races around the globe to find a Golden Buddha statuette containing a list of Korean spies the Japanese also want.
As he flits from Tokyo to Shanghai, from the U.S. to Manchuria, and finally to Switzerland — the whole movie was shot in South Korea — Lee is partnered with glamorous femme agent Mari (Park Shi-yeon, good), pines for love-of-his-life agent Yeon-ja (Gong Hyo-jin) and is hunted by enemy agent Damanegi (Kim Su-hyeon).
Action scenes vary from excellent to just OK, and retro production and costume design (except in the Shanghai seg) are strong. But the wind goes out of the movie’s sails during a long central section in Manchuria — involving Lee losing his memory and meeting a kooky girl (Hwang Bo-ra) — that pales in comparison with anything in “The Good the Bad the Weird.” Thereafter, the pic never recovers its opening brio.