Five years after “The Last Stand” — Korean director Kim Jee-woon’s one-off attempt at American filmmaking, a throwaway shoot-’em-up co-starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Johnny Knoxville — Kim is back home, applying what he learned in Hollywood to anime adaptation “Illang: The Wolf Brigade.” An obsidian-black sci-fi thriller all but consumed with corruption of the state and of the soul, the film opens stunningly enough, reminiscent of such late-’80s comics-to-screen transfers as Tim Burton’s “Batman” and the original “RoboCop” in its darkly atmospheric depiction of a grim near-future, but it gets confusing quick and never quite regains the promise of its first half-hour — which accounts for a disappointing local performance (“Illang” did fewer than one million admissions last summer in South Korea).
But that’s not the end of the road for “Illang,” which will next head to Netflix in all other territories. There, it may find a cult following, considering that the sharp-looking film boasts some of the most spectacular set pieces — including a stunning climactic showdown in which a steel-clad killing machine blasts his way through sewer tunnels crawling with dirty cops — that audiences are likely to find on the streaming service this fall. Action comes easy to Korean director Kim; it’s actors that he doesn’t always know what to do with. Ironically, that makes “Illang” a rather ideal project, at least on paper.
Based on Mamoru Oshii’s “Kerberos Panzer Cop” manga — whose 1999 anime adaptation, “Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade,” serves as a direct blueprint for this film’s stunning opening and climax — “Illang” transposes the story from Japan to Korea, where political and economic pressure have forced the divided country to consider reunification. That concept alone ought to make for a fascinating science-fiction parable, although it’s barely dealt with in any practical terms, other than to explain a wave of demonstrations that turn tragic on what comes to be known as “Bloody Friday,” when peacekeeping forces accidentally murder 15 schoolgirls, mistaking them for terrorists.
The film picks up five years later, as conditions have drastically worsened. The year is now 2029, and Special Unit forces now patrol wearing elaborate steel-plated armor. These “Wolf Brigade” uniforms are truly terrifying, turning normal cops into what look like nightmarish Nazi cyborgs, at least in silhouette: Beneath German tank helmets, a pair or round red eyes glow inhumanly at any who cross their paths, while their standard-issue peashooters have been replaced with heavy-duty machine guns. No country needs a Special Unit as scary as this, but it’s a compelling starting point for an action movie that promptly disbands the group one scene after they’re introduced.
First, they get a chance to track down and all-but-eliminate a terrorist group called the Sect (although it’s never quite clear what these rebels oppose, or whether we’re supposed to be rooting for or against them), before an incident involving an underage suicide bomber forces the authorities to pull the plug on the program. After hesitating to shoot the girl responsible for the blast, Lt. Lim (Gang Dong-won, the rare live-action star who’s less expressive than his hand-drawn equivalent) is publicly reprimanded and sent to “re-education” — whatever that means (other than a chance to feature a flashy training sequence in which he shoots his way through an abandoned building).
Then he meets Lee Yun-hee (Han Hyo-joo, also wooden), who claims to be the dead girl’s sister. Yoon-hee claims a lot of things over the course of the movie, and sooner or later, one would do well to stop believing her, since she’s the rebel/spy/love-interest/damsel-in-distress on whom the movie’s unnecessarily convoluted plot pivots at least three too many times. Suffice it to say, there is an elaborate conspiracy afoot to disband the Special Unit — which is strange, since they seem pretty effectively disbanded 15 minutes into the movie. Indeed, those hulking red-eyed soldier-cops disappear for nearly 90 minutes, until such time that Lim puts his own uniform on again and faces off against corrupt Public Security honcho Han Sang-woo (Kim Moo-yul, the film’s most charismatic actor), who may also be a Wolf Brigade member.
Actually, the meaning of “Wolf Brigade” changes midway through the movie, by which point audiences will have learned that it’s best not to spend too much energy attempting to follow the plot. Better simply to go with it, trusting that Kim can take whatever situation that arises as an opportunity to stage an exciting fight, chase, standoff or shootout — like the one atop Seoul’s Namsan Tower, where an elaborate plan to capture and/or kill Lim goes awry, leading to a dazzling escape whereby our hero jumps out the window of the observation deck, scales a scarlet red fire hose the 440 feet to the ground, and proceeds to bash his way out of the parking lot in a stolen Mercedes.
About that car — and the rest of the surrounding production details: Despite all the energy spent establishing how much Korea has changed between now and 2029 (a vision that calls for customized cars and tanks early on), about half an hour in, Kim either forgets that the film takes place in the future, or simply assumes that audiences will just carry on believing that premise, reverting back to what looks indistinguishable from the present day. Or maybe no new cars were made, buildings modified or fashions introduced after 2018. In any case, he focuses his style elsewhere, elaborating on the story’s Red Riding Hood allegory (which also happens to be Yun-hee’s choice of wardrobe) in an endlessly complicated loop of whether humans are hiding in wolves’ clothing or the other way around.