An extended Mexican standoff, Korean-style, “The Showdown” is well mounted but doesn’t quite cut it as a thinking person’s period actioner. An infusion of elegance and excellent choreography add grace to the wuxia genre, but this wordy, light-on-action effort from helmer Park Hoon-jung suffers by comparison with Chinese swordplay epics, and respectable performances by Park Hee-soon (“Antarctic Journey,” “A Family”) and Jin Goo (“Mother”) are hamstrung by an overly schematic structure. “Showdown” opened to disappointing biz domestically, battling “Black Swan” and Korean hit “Children … ” for aud attention.
Story begins with a midwinter battle in Manchuria, where local soldiers slaughter an invading army from Chosun (medieval Korea), not far from the border shared by the frequently feuding countries. In the aftermath, two young Chosun generals — old-friends-cum-rivals Lee Hyun-myung (Park Hee-soon) and Jang Do-young (Jin) — are left to die as a snowstorm blankets them and their fallen compatriots. Certain that he will perish and that his comrade is already a goner, Lee confesses aloud that he was responsible for the execution of Jang’s father by the high court.
The pair come to after the blizzard, and the less severely injured Jang helps Lee take refuge in an abandoned Manchurian trading post without mentioning the latter’s damning confession. Also hiding in the ruined store is chubby deserter Du-su (Ko Chang-seok, “The Host”). At first, Du-su is scared that the generals will punish him for going AWOL, a fear that escalates into panic when the two aristocrats, intent on killing each other, both try to enlist the soldier’s help. Du-su concludes that his only true hope of survival is to slay both of the feuding men.
Given Park’s previous efforts as a screenwriter (“The Unjust,” “I Saw the Devil”), it’s not surprising that his script privileges dialogue over swordplay. Extensive use of talky flashbacks helps reveal the depth of the bitterness between the wounded generals and gives the tale more heft. Nevertheless, pic would have benefited from meatier action sequences, rather than the short skirmishes that punctuate the drama, although the opening battle has proper heft. Park Hee-soon and Jin impress as the two strategists trying to outguess each other, and Ko gets good mileage out of Du-su’s potential for comic relief.
Helmer Park capitalizes on the widescreen elegance of Kim Young-ho’s lensing, which uses the gray timbers of the derelict trading post to dominate the artful tableaux. Flashback sequences take spectacular advantage of the Chosun dynasty’s penchant for vibrant color and the verdant radiance of springtime in Korea.
Won-il’s score underlines the scenario’s tensions without being overbearing. All other tech credits also have the superior stamp of Korean high style.