Anyone hungering for the sort of Hollywood-produced, period-set adventure stories that once were a mainstay of Saturday matinee cinema will take special delight in “Assassination,” a sensationally entertaining mash-up of historical drama, “Dirty Dozen” style shoot-‘em-up, spaghetti Western-flavored flamboyance, and extended action setpieces that suggest a dream-team collaboration of Sergio Leone, John Woo and Steven Spielberg. Never mind that helmer Choi Dong-hoon (“The Thieves”), working from a script he co-wrote with Lee Ki-cheol, doesn’t always make it crystal-clear just who’s really allied with whom, and why Character A is (or is not) killing, or at least trying to kill, Character B. This propulsively paced and lavishly mounted South Korean production, already a smash hit in its home territory, is sufficiently potent in its overall impact to make profitable incursions into global markets.
To offer any sort of detailed plot synopsis for “Assassination” is to risk spoiling twists — some predictable, but others far less so — that turn the narrative into something between merely complex and borderline Byzantine. Suffice it to say that things are set in motion in 1933, during the Japanese occupation of Korea, when Yem (Lee Jung-jae), acting as an agent for the provisional Korean government, arranges the early prison release of three uniquely talented professionals: Chu Sang-ok (Cho Jin-woong), a cynical weapons dealer nicknamed Big Gun; Hwang Deok-Sam (Choi Deok-moon), a Hungarian-trained explosives expert; and, most important, Ahn Okyun (Gianna Jun), a lethally adroit sniper who’s appointed leader of the trio.
Their mission: Assassinate a Japanese commander (Shim Cheol-jong) and a quisling Korean businessman (Lee Kyung-young) in Seoul. The complications: double crosses, a highly placed informant, triple-crosses, a suave hitman known as Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo), the hitman’s wisecracking assistant (Oh Dal-soo, rocking a brazen mustache that makes him look like a Korean offspring of Cesar Romero), quadruple crosses, and two long-separated twin sisters (part of a subplot planted during the film’s decades-earlier prologue) who are frequently, and dangerously, mistaken for each other.
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Helmer Choi artfully spices the tasty mix with a few welcome comic moments, most notably when Ahn and Hawaii Pistol meet cute in a Manchurian bar, and when Big Gun immediately drops his objections to Ahn’s leadership as soon as he learns what led to her being a prisoner in the first place. And while the action sequences are mostly serious — and seriously thrilling — there is something richly amusing about the spectacular craftsmanship on display during an assassination attempt near an inner-city gas station (which should impress history buffs with its subtle allusions to the 1914 assassination of Archduke Ferdinand), and an extravagant wedding that is rudely interrupted when bombs, not bouquets, are thrown. The final scenes, devoted to a postwar trial, come off as comparably sluggish, but lead to an emotional and satisfying forced feeding of just deserts.
Jun easily dominates the proceedings with her attention-grabbing balance of steely determination and kickass physicality. Ha provides strong support for his leading lady, and earns chuckles during his humorous give-and-take with Oh. Lenser Kim Woo-hyung and production designer Ryu Seong-hie vividly evoke the ’30s period flavor with meticulously appointed interiors and street scenes on studio sets. Editor Shin Min-kyung ratchets up the suspense throughout “Assassination,” although he might have cut a tad more ruthlessly in a few scenes to achieve maximum narrative momentum.