The Man from Nowhere
Well Go USA // R // $26.98 // March 8, 2011
Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 7, 2011
R E P L A Y
A D V I C E
Highly Recommended
E - M A I L
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R E V I E W S
Graphical Version
There's not really anything in the extras for The Man from Nowhere that spells out what the development process was like. I'm picturing a Korean screenwriter feverishly hammering out a remake of Léon, and
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halfway through, he got a copy of Taken in the mail and figured...ooh, let's do that instead. Stop me if this sounds familiar: Cha Tae-sik (Won Bin) is a quiet, shadowy figure holed up in a dingy apartment building. He doesn't speak. He has no friends. The place is swarming with rumors...is he a pedophile? A gangster? If Tae-sik is even aware of those murmurs, he shrugs them off, content to keep guzzling glasses of milk and tending for the little potted plant on his windowsill. The only person he really talks to at all is So-Mi (Kim Sae-ron), the spunky little girl next door who saddles up next to him as a very reluctant surrogate father. Can't say that I blame her. So-Mi's mother is a stripper who moonlights running heroin, and she's decided to hold onto some of that stash for a little extra spending money. Oops. She's fucking over the wrong people: a pair of brothers who aren't just slinging drugs around but are in the human organ harvesting game too. These guys aren't so much the types to let insubordination like this slide, so they've also snatched So-Mi, enslaving her as part of a network of pint-sized drug-runners. Since some of the heroin wound up being smuggled through Tae-sik's pawn shop, he gets ensnared in this whole mess too, caught in the crosshairs of the police, a rival gang, and these unflinchingly brutal thugs. 'Course, Tae-sik's not exactly helpless, and there's a reason the military has all records for nearly a decade of his life so tightly locked down. He's an unyielding force of pure vengeance, and he's carving a bloody path through the city's dark, sticky underbelly on his way to rescue So-Mi.

The Man from Nowhere keeps Tae-sik in the shadows for quite a bit of its runtime. In the same way that nearly half his face is obscured by his hair and what little we know about him comes in slow, deliberate drips, the audience is kept at arm's length from the action for nearly half the movie. It's an unconventional but wildly effective approach. Say, a bloated thug will start running towards Tae-sik, the camera cuts outside to a barred window shattering, and it returns inside to find an unconscious badnik on the floor and the ghostly force of destruction marching forward for round two. Each attack reveals a little more, leading up to fully unhinged, unflinching violence once the counter approaches the hour mark. The anticipation builds to the point that its inevitable release makes it all worth it. These fight sequences are spectacular, and much like the brawls throughout Taken, they're dazzlingly swift, brutal, and elegant...kind of like a ballet, only with a lot more knives. That's another thing too: these are intensely physical encounters, not just a bunch of people ducking behind cover and blasting away with submachine guns, and the choreography is inspired enough to not play like some kind of masturbatory martial arts showcase either. There's nailgun-fu, a heroin-fueled death trap, and straight-up goring with some kind of circular blade. Even when the artillery is whipped out, it's often used in a very inspired way, such as when a sheet of bulletproof glass stands
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between Tae-sik and his next target. The knifeplay is what really stands out the most, and that's the centerpiece of the longest, most brutal, and most memorable setpiece in the film. Won Bin is clearly tackling most of his stuntwork himself, and there are times I was kind of in awe of it all, such as a dive out a second story window where Tae-sik immediately hits the ground running, all in the space of a single, seamless shot.

Another thing The Man from Nowhere pulls off exceptionally well is setting the stakes. The bad guys in Western action flicks have a tendency to ham it up, to the point that they're pretty much moustache-twirling cartoon characters. The Man from Nowhere, meanwhile, makes it all too clear how unrepentantly cruel these gangsters are. They don't have to gnaw on the scenery like villains in an old Republic serial, and because they are generally so cool and collected, it infuses the scenes where they really go off-the-rails with that much more intensity. The movie does a spectacular job establishing just how bad they are -- how unforgivably savage and soulless they can be -- and that makes the havoc that Tae-sik wreaks all the more satisfying to watch unfold. The Man from Nowhere assembles a strong cast overall, with Won Bin shouldering both the dramatic heavy-lifting as well as the swift, devastating fight sequences. Kim Sae-ron showcases talent that extends far beyond her years, and she deftly balances playing a cute, spunky kid without ever seeming too precious or overwrittenly clever. It's a performance that's natural and powerful, and that makes the many tragedies she's forced to endure pack that much more of a wallop. I can't really say that Lee
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Jeong-beom's screenplay is much to marvel at -- it's serviceable but pretty routine -- but his direction is something else entirely. Western action flicks can be disorienting with their overreliance on the same few camera tricks and dizzying editing. Lee's direction is slick and stylish by any measure, but it's always to the movie's benefit. It maintains a frenetic sense of energy and is frequently fascinating to just look at, and yet it's always clear who's who in a fight, which characters are which...these may sound like obvious things to point out, but far too many of the action movies churned out on these shores get it wrong.

When I say that The Man from Nowhere splits the difference between a remake of The Professional and a retread of Taken, I don't mean that in a bad way at all. Those are two of my all-time favorite action movies, after all. Even though I'm all for twenty megaton explosions and stacks of bullet-riddled corpses, action that manages to weave in meaningful characterization and a strong emotional undercurrent while it's at it connect with me a little more. I'd still point to The Man from Nowhere as a first-rate action/drama, but there are a couple of things that keep this movie from reaching the same dizzying heights as its obvious inspirations. Creeping past the two hour mark, The Man from Nowhere feels a little on the long side, not earning its length the way Léon does. Some of the setup in particular -- the prolonged police investigation into Tae-sik's background, for instance -- makes it seems as if that same groundwork could've been laid out in a fraction of the time. Since the movie's basically two remakes in one, there's an unavoidable sense of déjà vu watching it too. I found myself getting swept up enough in the action and performances that I can look past how derivative the screenplay is, but the overall story does seem pretty routine. The Man from Nowhere also has a tendency to get really weepy and oversentimental, and a lot of this is tossed in throughout the third act when I'd expect more of a laser-tight focus on action. Clearly none of this grates all that much, judging by all the stars heaped on in the sidebar and that overall "Highly Recommended" rating. I'll admit to being surprised that there's not more hype buzzing around The Man from Nowhere on these shores, but I do think this is a movie people will be talking about sooner rather than later. With a price point this compelling -- several online stores carry the Blu-ray release for less than fourteen bucks -- you can afford to stay above the curve. For anyone who'd chalk themselves up as a fan of The Professional or Taken, recommendations don't get much easier to make than The Man from Nowhere. Highly Recommended.


Video
For the most part, The Man from Nowhere looks spectacular in high definition. Especially after reviewing so many movies shot with the flatter-looking RED camera, it's kind of refreshing to stumble upon a digital production with contrast this rich. Bolstered by deep, substantial blacks, The Man from Nowhere consistently delivers an impressive level of depth and dimensionality, and I was frequently startled by the volume of fine detail on display here. Unlike most Western flicks anymore, Korea doesn't tint everything teal or orange, and that means the boldness of its colors is often striking as well. Since The Man from Nowhere steps away from film, there obviously aren't any specks or nicks in the source, and what video noise is present remains unintrusive. The image without exception is clean and silky smooth, although...well, sometimes it's too smooth:
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The problems don't really leap out until you blow that up to full-size, but there are several moments like this where the image looks harsh and excessively digital. Facial textures have it the worst when this happens, looking uncomfortably smooth. In this shot in particular, Kim Sae-Ron's face looks like stretched rubber, and there's something frustratingly electronic about the way her hair is rendered. This sort of thing isn't a constant nuisance, but it does pop up throughout the movie. Other than those few short, scattered stretches, The Man from Nowhere looks terrific on Blu-ray.

The Man from Nowhere takes advantage of just about every byte handy on this single-layer Blu-ray disc. The video has been encoded with AVC and is letterboxed to preserve its theatrical aspect ratio of 2.39:1.


Audio
The Man from Nowhere piles on a pair of 16-bit, six-channel DTS-HD Master Audio soundtracks: one in its original Korean and another dubbed into English. I'll freely admit that I'm not one for dubs so much, and what little I sampled of The Man from Nowhere didn't do anything to change my mind. The English dub is there if you want it, but I'd really recommend sticking with the original Korean instead. This is a movie littered with kicks, punches, collisions, violent car wrecks, and cracks of gunfire, so it probably goes without saying that bass response is generally thick and meaty. The thumping bass at a club really leaves the subwoofer rattling as does a colossal explosion late in the film. Surround use is lighter than I'd normally expect, largely limited to subtle splashes of atmospheric color, cars panning across the soundscape, and reinforcing the score. The rears do heighten the intensity somewhat when the action ramps up -- particularly the bullets whizzing around -- but The Man from Nowhere does sound as if it was designed primarily with straightahead stereo in mind. Clarity and fidelity are fine but routine, not delivering that additional glossy sheen I get from the best sounding Blu-ray discs. This is a solid track but nothing I'd grab off the shelf as demo material.

The lossless Korean soundtrack is enabled by default, and the same goes for the disc's English subtitles. Along with the DTS-HD Master Audio, English and Korean tracks are also served up in Dolby Digital stereo.


Extras
  • Making-of (17 min.; SD): The Man from Nowhere's
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    behind-the-scenes footage is divided up into four distinct chunks. First up is a ten minute montage of footage from the set, and it revolves around nothing but fights and stuntwork. Some outtakes are scattered around here too, including a knife flying wildly out of control. Yikes. The talking head interviews are reserved for the remaining seven minutes and change. There are three of these in all, and they skew promotional, touching on the film's approach to action and how terrific a young actress Kim Sae-Ron is.

  • Highlights (5 min.; SD): Pretty much as advertised, this highlight reel condenses The Man from Nowhere down to five minutes.

  • Promotional Material (3 min.; SD): Rounding out the extras are a minute-long teaser and a full-length trailer.

This might sound like a random thing to give a thumbs-up to, but I really like that the embossed slipcover and the Blu-ray insert both showcase different pieces of artwork.


The Final Word
C'mon, we're talking about a Korean mash-up of The Professional and Taken, and The Man from Nowhere kicks just about as much ass as that sounds. It's not perfect, no -- the movie sometimes gets awkwardly oversentimental, it runs a little longer than it probably should, and the screenplay is clearly only there to string together a bunch of fights -- but with such strong performances and action this spectacularly swift and brutal, I'm not complaining. Why there isn't more buzz about The Man from Nowhere, I have no idea. This is a first-rate action/thriller that completely outclasses the cartoonishly over-the-top action flicks being churned out on these shores. With an extremely light sticker price -- under fourteen bucks from a couple different online retailers -- The Man from Nowhere is a movie that really demands to be discovered on Blu-ray. Highly Recommended.


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