Imagining a doomsday’s crisis with gleeful paranoia, “Steel Rain” unites a hyper-skilled North Korean operative with a nerdy presidential aide to stop a nuclear war. Adapting his own webtoon, South Korean writer-director Yang Woo-seok (“The Attorney”) whips up the sort of worst-case-scenario, anti-Communist hysteria that’s a hilarious throwback to the Cold War propaganda of 1970s cloak-and-dagger movies. Chock full of wham-bang action and flashy effects, it’s a thrill ride that benefits from the odd-couple dynamics of lead actors Jung Woo-sung and Kwak Do-won. With American and North Korean heads of state so recently boasting about the size of their “nuclear buttons,” the film gains topicality prior to its Netflix release.
Yang’s script thinks the unthinkable by conjuring a fictional coup against the Hermit Kingdom’s Supreme Leader, referred to as Number One throughout the film. Um Cheol-woo (Jung), a top agent in the North Korean army, follows orders of General Lee Tae-han (Kim Kap-soo) to assassinate two men who threaten state security. He arrives in Kaesong, a new economic zone serving Chinese businessmen, and witnesses an explosion. While most spy thrillers content themselves with a few military skirmishes, Yang gives us a full-blown missile altercation that shows this is a war film that means business.
What Um wasn’t briefed about is that Number One was on site officiating a ceremony, and he’s critically injured. With the help of two teenage cheerleaders, Um puts him in the back of his van and heads down to Seoul, the nearest place where they could get medical help. Although his face is never shown, the mere thought of his life hanging in the balance should be titillating enough for Korean audiences. They break into the clinic of a gynecologist (Park Eun-hye) who doesn’t feel confident enough to perform neurosurgery, so she fobs them off on her best friend (Kim Ji-ho), a plastic surgeon who happens to be the ex-wife of Kwak Cheol-woo (Kwak), secretary of national security at the Blue House (presidential office).
Then follows several scenes inside the Blue House, where South Korean leaders hold tense conference calls with a trigger-happy POTUS. Though irony may not be intended, these scenes do recall “Dr. Strangelove” in their surreal inhumanity. As in Kubrick’s political satire, the movie goes wild imagining a nuclear bust-up between the U.S., China, Japan, and the divided Korean peninsula. The ending delivers a smashing payoff, not through typical Korean CG-overkill, but with old-fashioned man-to-man fights choreographed by Choi Bong-rok and an eerie spectacle set in underground tunnels.
The film also revels in the most brazenly patronizing attitudes to North Koreans, mocking their backwardness by playing up the contrast between Um’s Stone Age walkie-talkie phone and Kwak’s ultra-slick smartphone. Their deprivation is keenly felt as the two cheerleaders’ marvel at noodle cups and instant rice, and later epitomized by Kwak asking Um if he’s ever tasted a hamburger, or “that meat-in-bread thing.” In the most fulsome assertion of South Korean soft power, Um and Kwak bond over the hip-hop music of idol G-Dragon, touting the cheesy message of “make K-pop, not war.”
Amid all the capitalist jingoism, Jung and Kwak manage to forge a convincing rapport that doesn’t just rehash the North-South “frenemy” relations seen in numerous Korean espionage films (from Jang Hoon’s “Secret Reunion” to Ryoo Seung-wan’s “The Berlin File”). This is partly due to the humanized portrayal of Kwak, who is nothing like the standard hot-shot patriotic agent. Recalling the actor’s role as the laid-back, befuddled cop in “The Wailing,” Kwak is instantly likeable as a meek paper-pusher beholden to layers of hierarchy at work, scorned as a loser by his ex-wife and struggling vainly to impress his spoiled brats.
His calm demenator and cognitive smarts to diffuse crises offers a modern prototype of heroism as a foil for the traditional man-of-steel stoicism of his Communist counterpart, implying that the former is the more viable approach in global politics. The process by which the two agents build their wary trust unfolds in a nuanced way, as when Kwak undoes Um’s handcuffs to let him gorge on noodles. Even their shared names, which initially sound overtly symbolic of the brotherhood between North and South, become rather touching as their divergent fates pan out.
Editing by Lee Gang-hee is brisk in both the action and quieter drama scenes, while effects at the high end of Korean standards deliver some impressive renderings of nuclear weapons and bombastic pyrotechnics. Shootouts and physical combat are also kinetically choreographed, making Um’s moves appear especially lethal.