Illang: The Wolf Brigade

2 out of 5

Directed by: Kim Jee-Woon

Visually, I’d say Illang: The Wolf Brigade holds up.  The armored outfits of the police ‘Special Unit’ look functional and fantastic, and Jee-Woon builds up to his selected action scenes well, then executes them excitingly, with his steady, quick pans keeping the action well framed and understandable, and the gunwork and fight choreography suggesting a satisfyingly tactile effect.  Unfortunately… the story.  The story, and its characters, don’t serve these action sequences very well; there’s no emotion behind them beyond looking cool, because the script – as cowritten by Jee-Woon – is both cluttered and empty at the same time, stressed to put in some lip service on a unified Korea and ‘allusions’ to the fable of Red Riding Hood (which may have played a larger role in the Mamoru Oshii works on which Wolf Brigade was based), but not actually making either of those truly relevant to the plot.  Our characters – good cops and bad cops – are presented in a twisty-turny show of shifting allegiances, but there’s no grounding with which we start, and so those changeups hardly matter.  It’s rather telling that a 140 minute movie has a two line summary on wikipedia.

…It’s probably also telling that that summary kinda gets a detail wrong.

In The Wolf Brigade, we have the Public Security Department – akin to uniformed cops – and the Special Unit – akin to S.W.A.T., but in future-ish heavy metal uniforms – both battling it out with The Sect, a rebellion against the attempted unification of North and South Korea.  The Special Unit kinda took a hit in terms of P.R. when they slaughtered some innocents in their terrorist hunts a while back, though it’s unclear what impact that has on things nowadays – they’re still called in when the PSD can’t deal with things – except that it gives Special Unit guy Im Joong-kyung (Gang Dong-won) a reason to look sad sometimes and feel conflicted.  What’s also unclear is, alas, the reasoning behind the crux of the remainder of the film: the PSD is trying to fully dismantle the Special Unit, and uses the fallout from a recent attempted Sect attack (the sister of a dead Sect member) to machinate secret plans to do so.

…But why?  Because something something money, and something something power, but… why?  And it goes unsaid that the thought is that more bad P.R. will finally push public opinion fully against the Unit, but it probably should have gone said, because before we understand what the thrust of the movie is, Im Joong-kyung’s sad eyes are interrupted by a lot of scheming from Han Sang-woo (Kim Mu-yeol) of the PSD, and clandestine meetings between figureheads, and then… an action sequence.  Talks of Korean unification are completely set aside; mentions of good guys and bad guys being the same are perhaps meant to parallel how the reasons behind this PSD vs. SU stuff is kind of murky – something that sort of also cropped up in Jee-Woon’s Age of Shadows – but just like that movie, the point isn’t effectively sold by what’s on screen.

The titular Wolf Brigade enter pretty late into the film, described as a secret group within the Special Unit which is just out to oust any bad element, whether it’s terrorists or within their own ranks.  That this only becomes a part of things later on makes the groups’ role hard to factor in to the film, and feels entirely unearned when we’re supposed to “cheer” for them in one of the climactic battles.

For what it’s worth, I have not read the manga or seen the previous adaptation of it.  I could make some snipe about how I found Oshii’s Ghost in the Shell (both the manga and anime) to be lacking in depth, and that maybe that carries over here, but it’s not fair to make that assumption.  It’s posssible that Jee-Woon bungled adapting the material to a Korean setting, and / or  mixed up his presentation of carried over plot points, but again, that would just be an assumption.  All I can assess is the movie itself, which carries itself with a convincing swagger – I wasn’t bored – and has some acefully crafted action sequences, but completely misses making any impactful story decisions, or bringing any grounded and interesting characters to the show.