A high-octane South Korean remake of the 2007 Hong Kong crime thriller “Eye in the Sky,” “Cold Eyes” sustains its nervy tension all the way. For a work that hews so close to its source in dramatizing a police surveillance operation against a sophisticated robbery ring, it’s to the credit of co-helmers Cho Ui-seok and Kim Byung-seo that the film has forged its own identity, rooted in the seamy Seoul cityscape and a sterling cast that rivals “Eye’s” thesps for dynamism. Already sold to a handful of territories, the pic deserves a serious look from genre fans at its Toronto preem.
Helmed and co-written (with Au Kin-yee) by Yau Nai-hoi and produced by Johnnie To, “Eye in the Sky” (2007) was so seamlessly plotted and nimbly orchestrated that it was a smart move not to tinker with it. Instead, Cho and Kim have upped their game in action and special effects, particularly the car stunts and explosions that Korean crews excel in. With its healthy budget on proud display, the production is less hard-boiled and quirky than “Eye,” but what it loses in the original’s inimitable stylistic tics, it makes up for in a high-end tech package with enhanced international appeal. Like “The Thieves” (2012), another blockbuster that references Hong Kong crimers, “Cold Eyes” has drawn more than 5 million admissions, making it one of South Korea’s biggest hits of this year.
The film hits its stride immediately from its opening sequence, shifting from the original’s retro tram to a speeding subway car. Stirring up maximum intrigue, the camera sprints to and fro among the three main protags, all covertly eyeing each other: tomboyish Ha Yoon-joo (Han Hyo-joo), bedraggled, middle-aged Hwang (Sol Kyung-gu) and stone-faced James (Jung Woo-sung). It eventually transpires that Ha is a police cadet on her way to an interview to join a special surveillance unit, while Hwang is the unit’s section chief, assessing her skills incognito. She gets the job, but not before she’s thoroughly humbled by Hwang, who gives a live demo of how minutely observant a surveillance officer needs to be.
While this is going on, James is leading a precision-tooled bank heist, getting the adrenaline going with some pulverizing car crashes staged amid downtown traffic. After quelling his cohorts’ squabbling over how to divide the loot, James confers with his mentor/broker (Kim Byung-ok), a cobbler who gives him one last job: to infiltrate the server room of the stock exchange to implant some data.
The helmers try to beef up the film with a succession of vicious hand-to-hand combat scenes, but other than enhancing James’ image as an unstoppable killing machine, these sometimes come off as redundant. While transactions with his Hong Kong counterpart (Tony Leung Ka-fai) and his broker offer insight into the cash-strapped realities of his profession, James’ relationship with the cobbler, who oozes malevolence for no good reason, is nebulous in a pretentious way.
Much more engaging are the procedural details of how the surveillance unit operates as a team, how they not only tail or eavesdrop on suspects, but also deploy nifty methods to get into their targets’ heads. The alternately playful and emotionally wrenching process by which Ha learns the ropes from Hwang grants the meticulous screenplay its warm, mushy heart.
Even when many episodes faithfully follow “Eye in the Sky’s” plot development, the astutely chosen outdoor locations create an ambience distinct from Hong Kong street scenery. A mid-film stakeout achieves a tremendous level of tension, set as it is in a neighborhood that gives Mongkok a run for its money in seediness. The grand finale is a propulsive sequence that moves across Jong-no, the upscale downtown area, to the subterranean depths of a hidden subway platform.
As the sloppy-looking but actually sharp-as-a-tack Hwang, Sol gives the character a more butch and authoritative spin than Simon Yam did in the original. About as warm as an icicle and sporting an aggressively asymmetrical haircut, Jung brings his usual reserve to a role that’s the very embodiment of cold efficiency. As Ha, Han offsets her greenhorn goofiness with flashes of ingenuity, making one especially root for her in the climactic puzzle-solving scenes. The rest of the ensemble cast gels, but not in a hugely animated way; Yam makes a cameo appearance that reps a playful nod to the film’s source while also upping the star wattage.
Tech credits are aces. Lensing is particularly good at capturing great heights and re-creating each protagonist’s perspective using visual effects and virtuosic camera movements. The Korean title simply means “The Surveillants.”