Drawing mordant parallels between professional hitmen and cutthroat business execs, “A Company Man” gamely reimagines contract killing in the world of corporate culture. The concept of a renegade assassin longing to quit may be a time-worn staple of noir cinema, but helmer-scribe Lim Sang-yun’s action-thriller is a jaunty ride nonetheless, straddling workaday reality and a fantasy world of kickass combat. The Showbox title has done socko business, with sales to 55 countries and more than 1 million domestic admissions. A bright career in ancillary looks likely.
Ji Hyeong-do (So Ji-sub, “Always,” “Sophie’s Revenge”) is a midlevel employee at a contract-killing agency masquerading as a metal-shipping company. When he’s assigned to perform a post-assassination clean-up operation, which requires him to dispose of his newbie partner, Hun (Kim Dong-jun), Ji agrees to grant Hun’s dying wish, and pays a visit to the man’s family. He’s beside himself when he discovers that Hun’s single mother, Mi-yeon (Lee Mi-youn), was a pop idol he adored as a teenager.
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Although his onetime mentor, Ban (Lee Geung-young), advises him to stick around long enough for the retirement check, Ji’s buttoned-up existence begins to unravel even faster when he’s assigned to eliminate his supervisor, Jin (Yoo Ha-bok), a family man so burned out, he’s gone MIA.
The pic’s hook is hardly new: A firm of professional killers subscribing to the same soulless, number-crunching ethos of any conglomerate also serves as the underlying operational premise of recent Hollywood entries such as “Haywire” and “Looper.” But although the conceit quickly wears thin, the incongruity of Ji and his colleagues going to work in starchy suits, spending as much time filing reports and making presentations as they do practicing at a firing range, exerts a surreal fascination. Colorful supporting roles, including meddling senior manager Gwon (Kwak Do-won) and outwardly avuncular but ruthless chairman Jeon (Jeon Kuk-hwan), drive home the reality that office politics can be found anywhere.
The plot developments are nothing if not formulaic, from Ji’s “Le Samourai”-style existential emptiness to the inevitability with which he becomes a target himself, and the picture’s thematic comparisons become bluntly obvious toward the end. But innovation and contemplation are hardly the point here; Nam Na-young’s punchy editing keeps auds hooked with rapid fire shootouts and bone-crunching action, while scenes of hand-to-hand combat are choreographed with devil-may-care abandon.
In the sole departure from convention, Ji risks everything not for a young love interest, but for a snappy middle-aged housewife, played with endearing self-pity by Lee Mi-youn (emerging from a five-year hiatus). Their furtive exchange imbues Ji’s stiff-necked personality with some tenderness.
Technical execution is on the ball, though Lee Hyung-duk’s hyperactive lensing tends toward kitschy. Electronic rock riffs accompany the action sequences to spunky effect.