Flashy but convoluted.
Anime adaptations are rarely a good idea in the first place. To take a beloved classic and make it a big budget blockbuster and then add 40 minutes to the runtime is an even worse idea. Writer/director Kim Jee-woon clearly has an eye for intriguing thrillers and electrifying action, but he doesn’t seem to know what to do with the movie's bad actors, and his idea to take a relatively simple story and add 4 different subplots was misguided.
Illang is based on Mamoru Oshii’s Kerberos Panzer Cop, and especially on its 1999 anime adaptation Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade, though Kim relocates the story from post-WWII Japan to 2024 South Korea. We are told through a 5-minute-long prologue that fears of an impending war over a territorial dispute between Japan and China caused the two Koreas to launch preparations for unification. This leads to the emergence of a terrorist group named Sect, which opposes the joint government of South and North Korea.
That concept alone makes for a fascinating science-fiction film, but unfortunately, it’s all setup that is immediately abandoned. It’s only use is during the prologue to explain why the government would launch a Special Unit force to put an end to Sect.
Illang: The Wolf Brigade picks up five years into the unification plans. An incident involving the death of innocent teens causes the Special Unit to become ruthless killing machines, hiding their faces--and the last traces of their humanity--behind elaborate steel-plated armor and helmets. These are among the scariest non-Nazi soldiers ever to be put on screen. Each of them is a one man army, with heavy duty machine guns, steel shields on their forearms capable of resisting hand-grenades, and German war helmets with gas masks covering their faces. Think of the T-60 Power Armor from the Fallout series, but make it 100 times scarier and more evil, and add terrifying round red eyes that glow with the intensity of nightmarish soldiers from hell, and you get the Special Unit soldiers.
The opening sequence is straight out of the 1999 anime, with a confrontation between the Sect and the Special Unit inside sewer tunnels. Kim Jee-woon knows how to frame an action scene. He uses mostly tracking shots, following each of the players involved, highlighting the fear and desperation in the eyes of the terrorists (though the film never makes it clear if we should feel bad for them or not), and the cold, heartless dedication behind the cyborg-like the Special Unit. The use of light and shadow to build suspense as the sewers suddenly go dark and multiple red eyes start to glow will send chills down your spine. But the fight ends quickly after a young girl detonates herself, and after spending the entire opening introducing us to this badass group of scary soldiers and showing how formidably effective they are, the film pretty much sweeps them under the rug for the rest of its runtime.
After the attack (and the fun), the film starts getting complicated. Instead of a badass group of killing-machines, we are stuck with the emotionless Lt. Lim (Gang Dong-won, with the charisma of a log), who is suffering from PTSD following the suicide bombing. He meets a woman claiming to be the girl’s sister, Lee Yun-hee (singer-turned-wooden-actress Han Hyo-joo), and they’ll soon find themselves at the center of a conspiracy to disband the Special Unit--despite them already been disbanded after the opening scene. From here on out, Illang: The Wolf Brigade devotes much of its remaining runtime to a pointless attempt at inflating the runtime and creating intrigue when you don’t care about the mystery. Kim Jee-woon’s script can’t handle the mystery without a lot of heavy exposition and needlessly complicated doublecross-on-doublecross. To make this more convoluted, he adds too many interested parties and secret organizations into his conspiracy (some of them appearing only in conversation and for 5 minutes), making it hard to keep track of who works for whom or what they want.
The film attempts to convey a message about following orders blindly and becoming an emotionless beast--there’s a recurring allegory to Little Red Riding Hood and the idea of a wolf in human clothing, with the film’s title of Illang being a combination of “human” and “wolf” in Korean--but it tries to juggle too many things while focusing on the most boring element, the romance between Lim and Lee. Even if the film managed to balance the romance, sci-fi, action, and political conspiracy, it wouldn’t change the fact that the two have the least amount of chemistry in a couple since Anakin and Padmé in Star Wars. There is zero emotional depth to the characters (or actors who can convey any emotion), and together they make for a boring and shallow couple.
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There is also the weird use of the 2029 setting when the futuristic tanks and helicopters from the opening sequence are quickly abandoned in favor of modern technology. Did the filmmakers forget, or did nothing new get produced after 2018?
Illang: The Wolf Brigade does have fantastic action sequences, especially the one involving the steel-clad unstoppable soldier killing his way through sewer tunnels filled with corrupt cops. The issue is that there are only two action scenes, and they are buried beneath 139 minutes of convoluted storylines and melodrama. Even worse, Kim Jee-woon’s decision to give away with the original film’s bleak ending in favor of a happy and commercially friendly ending betrays the only interesting themes in this underwhelming Korean sci-fi thriller.
|The Good||The Bad|
|The design of the Special Unit is the stuff of nightmares||Overstays its welcome|
|The action is breathtaking||Too many unnecessary factions to keep track of|
|Convoluted conspiracy that amounts to nothing|
|Threads and characters get dropped out of nowhere|
|A central romance with zero emotional depth|