On Oct. 26, 1979, South Korean president Park Chung-hee was assassinated by the chief of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency — a coup that ended the autocrat’s 16-year grip on a country that has wrestled with corruption and scandal ever since. The still-mysterious circumstances of that inside job (which inspired 2005’s “The President’s Last Bang”) gives “Squid Game” star Lee Jung-jae ample license to hatch all kinds of wild conspiracies in Cannes-selected directorial debut “Hunt,” a twisty, action-packed political thriller — one that keeps you guessing even as it spirals into ever-crazier realms — about renegade agents, shifting agendas and a nutty plot against Park’s successor.
“Hunt” takes place four years after Park’s death, in 1983, as rival security chiefs try to outmaneuver one another with the putative goal of protecting the new leader. Since a KCIA chief killed the previous prexy, however, it’s plausible that an insider might try to off his replacement — and since this guy’s rotten as well (Google “Gwangju Massacre”), that makes the movie’s allegiances especially tricky to untangle. Who should we consider to be the movie’s hero: the person scheming to unseat this despot or the one risking his life to save him?
Audiences needn’t know much about South Korean history to appreciate what follows, other than to trust that the country’s power shifts tend to be shocking and soap-operatic when they come, which helps to justify the confusing snare of double- and triple-crosses ahead. Things start conventionally enough, as a group of highly trained operatives make a first attempt at the Korean president’s life during a visit to Washington, D.C., but by the end, they have escalated to such a degree that pretty much anyone is capable of anything.
A major international star following his leading role in Netflix’s hit “Squid Game” series, Lee proves surprisingly adept behind the camera, especially when it comes to staging high-intensity shootouts, even as he plays one of the film’s KCIA chiefs, KCIA foreign unit head Park Pyong-ho. (“Squid Game” fans should be delighted to find series baddie Heo Sung-tae here as well, playing a shifty agent.) Launching the long but lightning-paced film with a jolt of adrenaline, Lee establishes early mutual suspicions between his character and KCIA’s domestic chief, Kim Jung-do (Jung Woo-sung, the good guy in cult kimchi Western “The Good, the Bad, the Weird”).
Like Korea’s answer to playbook-be-damned “24” hero Jack Bauer, these two top spies use torture, murder and more as tools of the trade. Early on, a North Korean asylum seeker warns that there’s a mole in the KCIA, code name “Donglim,” leading each agent to suspect the other. Whoever he is, this traitor’s presence puts key operations in serious jeopardy: A dozen agents are executed in a deadly ambush, while plans to extract the defector backfire spectacularly, resulting in a visceral car chase/shootout.
The cat-and-mouse dynamics of “Hunt” aren’t nearly as satisfying as its action set-pieces, which Lee and his team pull off with considerable skill. The action is slick and immediate without feeling overly stylized. Eschewing slo-mo and show-offy choreography in favor of more immersive eyewitness blocking, Lee channels American maestro Michael Mann, resulting in gun battles where tough guys stride into danger without so much as flinching while high-caliber bullets slam through steel around them.
Of the two agents, Lee is the more likable, giving off classic Jimmy Stewart vibes (from any of the Hitchcock films in which he plays the falsely accused fall guy) as Kim starts to question whether he could be the mole. The eventual reveal of Donglim’s identity isn’t nearly as straightforward as anyone might have expected, though saying more might spoil the surprise of a finale that spins everyone’s motives so far around, even the American agent (Derek Chouinard) keeping tabs from the sidelines has been implicated in the madness. The last few scenes are so ludicrous as to be laughable, but that doesn’t sabotage the fun, allowing Lee to entertain, even as “Hunt” cynically makes its case that in Korea, there can be no such thing as a peaceful revolution, nor a clean transfer of power.