A cargo ship makes its way towards Japan when it's boarded by armed men who slaughter the crew and ransack the ship. The leader of the pirates - a brutal Korean with a gloomy disposition - finally finds what he's looking for: A bunch of anonymous looking crates.
This is not the first time this shipping route has been hit by modern day pirates, but it's the first time an American ship has been targeted. However, this was not just a coincidence. The seemingly ordinary cargo ship was used to transport 12 high-tech missile kits from Taiwan. The kits, commissioned by the United Sated, meant for Okinawa, were exactly what the pirates were after. An international crisis looms on the horizon. The United States and Japan are putting pressure on the South Korean government to stay of out the matter, but of course they can't do that.
The South Korean intelligence service secretly mounts an operation to recover the stolen property and capture the man responsible. They call upon Naval Intelligence Officer Lt. Kang Se-jung to take on this mission.
Se-jung begins his investigation, and soon learns the name of the pirate leader. The man is called Sin. Meanwhile the plot thickens as Sin attempts to procure 30 tons of nuclear waste from a Russian contact.
When Se-jung uncovers more of Sin's background history he discovers that Sin lost his entire family as they attempted to defect to South Korea and it becomes clear that Sin may plan to use his new-found WMDs to seek revenge on South Korea.
Korean cinema is no stranger to large pompous action movies, but it's been a while since we saw anything in the vein of "Shiri" or "2009: Lost Memories". Until now. "Typhoon" is nowhere near as good as either of these films, but it's close enough for my taste. It's got a hyper-realistic approach to the secret agent portion of the story, which reminded me of the "Bourne Identity" movies, while the overall plot, the race to stop a terrorist, is not that dissimilar to an oldie like "Black Sunday" (1977).
The brutal opening raid on the cargo ship perfectly establishes "Typhoon's" relentless tone. This is not a film that will pull any punches! As if to underline that fact, the sequence ends with Sin's cohorts dropping the bloody corpses of the crew members into the ocean, while Sin himself burns their wallets (including those oh-so cute family photos), just to erase the last trace of doubt that this is in fact our main bad guy!
Director Kwak Kyung-taek - who also made "Friend" - has a great shooting style. Even in a simple sequence, like the pirates boarding the cargo ship, he manages to introduce a great energy and flow. What could have been a dull series of establishing shots, is suddenly turned into a riveting scene, through the use of subtle camera moves and creative angles. Same goes for the large scale action scenes - a brief but energetic car chase, several exhilarating near-miss confrontations between hero and villain and the final showdown - all of which share that same sense of energy.
To tell you the truth I was never that crazy about "Friend" and I never managed to catch Kwak's subsequent efforts, "Champions" or "Mutt boy", but I guess the highest compliment I can give him is that "Typhoon" made me want to go back and watch those films.
"Typhoon" brings us another excellent performance from Jang Dong-gun. Jang has captured my attention since the first time I saw him in "2009", and despite having only starred in a handful of feature films, he is one of my favorite Korean actors. In the part of Sin Jang gets to portray yet another tortured character, but he does that so well. Watch the look on his face when Sin is reunited with his long-lost sister. If that's not utterly believable I don't know what is... Jang manages to give Sin a human face - much like Choi Min-shik did with his character in "Shiri" - so we're not just dealing with a perfunctory bad guy, but a real human being, who has a reason for doing what he does.
Opposite him we have Lee Jung-jae, who has to work within more confined perimeters, after all he's supposed to be a cold highly trained agent. Se-jong is calm and in complete control of his feelings, so Lee has to make do with very subtle shifts in his eyes and facial expressions. Often in a good action film like this, a complex villain will end up stealing the show from the hero, but thanks to Lee that doesn't happen here.
The only problem I have with the film is that the story gets a little too complicated sometimes. It relies on a specific flow of information - it's important for the plot that we learn certain things later, rather than sooner - and if you're a victim of subtitles, like myself, you'll probably lose track of who's who and why a few times. Good thing the DVD player has that rewind button then.
Of course the whole thing descents into a mad bad big beautiful action finale. Without revealing too much, let me just lay these key sentences on you: Black helicopters racing through a stormy night. A SWAT Team attack on a ship in a violent storm. A knife fight on a suspension bridge above a raging fire...
For some reason I'd managed to convince myself that "Typhoon" was a drama and that the story in some way dealt with a crime family. Instead what I got was a pure-bred action-thriller complete with secrets agents, shady government sanctioned missions and plots to destroy the world, filled with good solid action scenes and believable characters.
It's not a sophisticated story by any means, but "Typhoon" is a well-oiled machine that does to perfection what any film should do as a minimum. It entertains.