Armed to the hilt with double-, triple- and quadruple-crossings between gangsters, moles and cops, “The Merciless” tries to be the whole “Infernal Affairs” trilogy rolled into one movie. A largely generic crime thriller in which a ruthless gangster and his protege fight for dominance in and out of prison, the third film by South Korean director Byung Sung-hyun barrels forth with riotous energy, but two-thirds into the picture, the switcheroos get so ridiculous one eventually stops caring about any character. This is a shame, as the two leads, Sul Kang-gul and Yim Si-wan, are flamboyantly compelling.
Still, the stylized production and stomach-churning violence are tailor-made for Asian genre fans, making the film an easy sell abroad. Although a controversy surrounding the helmer’s provocative tweets has hurt domestic box office, the movie has already presold to more than 110 territories worldwide.
A prologue introduces the formidable protagonist, Jae-ho (Sul, “Oasis,” “Silmido”), via a boozy conversation between two gangsters. One of them, Byung-gab (Kim Hie-won), mentions with both admiration and dread that Jae-ho stares hard into his victims’ eyes when he kills them.
Next, we see the release of young punk Hyun-su (Yim) from jail. He’s picked up by Jae-ho, who became his protector and bro during their incarceration. The flashy red sports car and even flashier red-clad Russian escort Jae-ho offers him sets the film’s racy, live-fast-die-young spirit.
Jae-ho, who’s the No. 2 in a Busan mob that smuggles cocaine from Russia under the guise of a seafood import business, takes Hyun-su under his wing. This ticks off Byung-gab, who turns out to be the nephew of boss Ko (Lee Kyoung-young, “Inside Men”), as well as Jae-ho’s buddy since their days in an orphanage. While Ko seems to give his right-hand man and new protege plenty of leeway, he secretly plots with Byung-gab to contain these ambitious upstarts. Yet Ko is not safe either, as police chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin) doggedly chases any leads that would put him behind bars.
Byung, who also wrote the screenplay with Kim Min-soo, makes head-spinning shuffles in the timeline, but to his credit, the narrative keeps its momentum and only starts to lose the plot in the last stretch. The beefiest part of the yarn happens in flashback three years earlier at Gyeonggi penitentiary, where Jae-ho and Hyun-su did time together.
Byung revels in upending viewers’ expectations about characters as well as how their feuds and collaborations pan out. While Jae-ho runs a cigarette monopoly behind bars, lording over the inmates and wardens, the slightly built and delicately featured Hyun-su (“even his bruises are pretty,” marvel the inmates) emerges from obscurity to save Jae-ho from a lethal assault.
Action choreography by Hur Myung-hang is bluntly tactile and seethes with red-blooded intensity, as when Hyun-su single-handedly escalates a face-slapping game into a take-no-prisoners roughhouse. But it reaches an unwatchable level in a torture scene that involves boiling water, lamb chops and a tattooed chest.
Byung claims his work is an homage to ’80s Hong Kong action films, though his obvious reference is Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s crime trilogy “Infernal Affairs” (2002-03), adapted by Martin Scorsese into “The Departed.” However, while the protagonists’ moral ambiguity in the trilogy and its remake is explored in a particularly riveting way, here, Byung seems unsure with whom audience sympathy should lie, or even how to end the film.
Initially, when the two protagonists try to gain each other’s trust, the tension is as tingling as a courtship, and it’s never sure who’s got the upper hand. This is complicated by Jae-ho’s discovery of who put him behind bars, as well as something Byung-gab is cooking with the Russian Bratva, even as Ko is plotting against their boss, Vitaly. Police chief Cheon, who is as unscrupulous as any, is poised to pounce on all of them. After a point, however, the characters lose any credibility as each becomes turncoat, switching sides so frequently the motives for their decisions no longer make sense. Apparently, Jae-ho was supposed to be bisexual, which makes his responses to Hyun-su’s overtures more understandable, but this got edited out.
Despite the themes of loyalty and trust being both overdone and muddled under Byung’s treatment, the two leads make it look like their lives depend on every moment they spend together. Sul, who’s never played a major villain in an illustrious 21-year career, dials his temper up to 11 and sometimes ends up a parody of his own screen persona. Yim (“The Attorney”), member of hit boy band Ze:A, goes through a roller-coaster of moods but manages to retain a core personality, wringing pathos from a cliched tearjerking mother-son relationship.
Production values are polished, but despite technically excellent stunts and effects, neither the fights nor car crashes are eye-catching. Sound is cranked up to deafening levels and music is too much of a mixed bag of styles, from jazzy jamboree to schmaltzy orchestral.
The Korean title roughly translates as “Hooligans: The World of the Bad Guys.”