Banking on boy-band hottie T.O.P. in the role of a North Korean agent infiltrating a South Korean high school, “Commitment” makes just about all the right moves in its blend of espionage thriller and teen-idol drama. Tyro helmer Park Hong-soo handles wall-to-wall action, political intrigue and adolescent love with a relentless efficiency that befits his protagonist, even if the execution can feel as methodical as that of a killer checking off a hit list. Still, young female viewers may be too busy swooning over T.O.P. (in dual roles of awesome assassin and knight in shining armor) to quibble with the predictable storyline. Though domestic B.O. has been middling, distributor Showbox already hit paydirt by preselling to the U.S., Europe and eight Asian countries.
Following June’s sleeper hit “Secretly, Greatly,” “Commitment” adopts that film’s gimmick of casting pretty boys as spies in a high-school setting, but with a leaner, more tonally consistent narrative (scripted by Kim Soo-young), absent “Secretly’s” goofy characters and tedious farcical plot diversions. As assistant director for helmer Jang Hun, Park has clearly picked up on his mentor’s rigorous pacing and clean, sharp action choreography; Jang’s “Secret Reunion,” with its story of a North Korean spy stranded in the South, reps another clear influence here.
On his way home after completing a mission in Seoul, North Korean agent Lee Young-ho (Park Sung-woong) is intercepted by South Korean forces at the port of Incheon. Back in Pyongyang, his 18-year-old son, Myung-hoon (Choi Seung-hyun, aka T.O.P.), and younger daughter (Kim You-jung, angelic), are exiled to a labor camp for being kin to an alleged traitor. Col. Moon Sang-chul (Jo Sung-ha), who heads the elite squad Unit 8, offers Myung-hoon a chance to free his sister if he agrees to carry out secret orders in the South.
Myung-hoon arrives in Incheon posing as a defector and is adopted by “foster parents,” who are actually North Korean spies, and Park slips in some culture-clash satire while exposing these longtime infiltrators’ bourgeois tastes. Although they advise Myung-hoon to brace himself for the South’s grueling cram-school culture (“Kids in the North have it easy,” they quip), he finds time to rescue mousy classmate Hye-in (gamine Han Ye-ri) from school bullies and to intimidate the biology teacher with his killer assault reflexes and encyclopedic knowledge of reproduction, all the while executing his extracurricular assassination assignments with flawless panache. However, the impending death of Kim Jong-il sets in motion an internal party schism that has dire repercussions for Myung-hoon.
The screenplay is pretty slipshod when it comes to plot details and credibility issues. Spies seem to penetrate the Republic of Korea as casually as they might walk down to the local pub, and South Korean agents are horrendously slow to catch on or arrive on the scene. The power struggles between Unit 8 and the rival Unit 35, though pivotal to Myung-hoon’s fate, are also examined in a muddled way; murders are intercut with shots of Pyongyang cadres mumbling in power meetings, with no context or sense of logic. Nevertheless, the action and stunts are expertly handled, the sinewy human combat repping a hard-boiled departure from the style of most Korean commercial films, bloated as they often are with pyrotechnics and visual effects.
Making up for the pic’s generic thriller elements is the more-friendly-than-romantic relationship between Myung-hoon and his classmate Hye-in, which is sketched with gentle poignancy. Despite a lackluster start, Han emerges as a solid presence in the later going, expressing calm resilience even as the personal drama makes way for male-oriented action. Cast in a coolly appealing but not especially taxing role, T.O.P. ably conveys Myung-hoon’s rigorous training and prowess in combat, but he proves somewhat lacking in depth in the more emotionally demanding scenes.
Production package is visibly budget-conscious, making do with drab suburban locations and bland sets, as well as conventional camerawork and music. The original Korean title means “Alumni” or “Classmate.”