The Merciless tells the crime genre age old tale of young, and spirited undercover cop, in this case being Hyun-soo (Im Siwan) infiltrating a criminal organization to take down Jae-Ho (Sol Kyung-Gu), and his boss empire. It sounds by the number, but when it comes to execution it delivers a pleasant surprise, and only for the first half. I can’t name you another movie in general that opened up with two criminals talking about eating raw fish, and killing people. This unusual opening show traits of the film capabilities to make something fresh out of a generic concept. For half of the movie, it does that perfectly fine. It does the usual plot points of showing the undercover cop infiltrating the prison, the preparation before the operation, and information regarding the criminals the officers are attempting to capture. Moving along in the prison where it also contain scenes you would expect; the undercover cop gaining the powerful criminal trust, rescuing powerful criminal from death, capturing the top criminal attention in a prison brawl, and eventually bonding. Familiarity easily could have been this film biggest enemy, but it turns it around, add its own spin on things, and feels fresh.
For about an hour, it does a superb job sprinkling plot points that could eventually become rewarding the more the film progresses. Showing early on shades of grey on both the officers Hyun-soo works for, and the criminal he’s infiltrating. All the while balancing Hyun-soo ever growing bond with the target, what it does to him mentally, and showing how his loyalty wavered. Another nice approach to the matter is taking a setup that is usually played dead serious, and adding much needed levity to make it stand apart. Giving the prison portion of the movie more charm than one would expect. Providing a host of laughs without tonal whiplash when it goes back to being serious. The fun nature become part of the characters we follow, and makes them likable. While in prison, the story doesn’t forget to thicken the story by providing Jae-Ho his own conflicts. Ensuring even if Hyun-soo isn’t on screen something significant does feel like is happening. It’s unfortunate that once both characters make their eventual exit from prison it’s all a series of bad choices.
A slight twist to liven up a generic set up is the film antagonist knows our protagonist is an undercover cop for half of the movie. This makes the dynamic far more interesting by avoiding the usual pitfall of “the lier reveal” climax movies of this nature tend to heavily rely on. It’s a shame the film decides to do very little with this twist. Hyun-soo plays both sides conflicted about where he belongs, and goes in the direction you expect it too. The police officers begin to doubt his loyalty, and so do some of the criminals. It never becomes a greater of two evil since the decides to remove the shades of grey it set up early on. A singular plot point derails the shades of grey undoing its own fresh take on a generic story.
Another aspect where the film falls apart is the police chief. This character is just here just because the film needs a stubborn chief to keep the undercover cop in check. There’s nothing done with her whereas Jae-Ho is meant to be a surrogate father to our protagonist. With this major flaw it’s impossible for the film to make a good case for why Hyun-soo loyalty should be solely with the law when the film frequently shows Hyun-soo getting berating, and the police chief mistreating him constantly for a job he didn’t want. Jae-Ho on the other hand also suffers from the lone fact him, and Hyun-soo relationship isn’t shown enough on a personal level. When it comes to them doing their criminal deeds there’s no expense of those scenes to find, but showing them interact in non job related activities is virtually absent. Doing a disservice to the viewer for detailing the growth of Hyun-soo, and Jae-Ho relationship.
What The Merciless was trying to go for is also questionable. The first half of the movie attempts to be a crowd pleaser while the second half takes a more arthouse approach both of which aren’t balanced. Instead of weaving a story that handle both style of cinema it went the easy route, and simply separating two vastly different style instead of combining them together. The second half attempts to make the viewer think on the story, and what it’s protagonist has to live with. Problem is, what the viewer is meant to take away from the story largely is unknown. It has a bleak ending, and that doesn’t means much when characters lose their appeal overtime the longer it goes on. Once outside of prison, the movie fails to further develop it leads in engaging ways. Reiterating traits about them already established. If it was trying to be a tragedy than it didn’t provides the characters needed to be worth caring about. Failing as a crowd pleaser since it goes from a fun, and occasionally grim undercover cop movie to a contemplated piece about human nature, and loyalty. It’s a messy movie with clear potential, and it dropped the ball.
On the acting, and technical side of things it’s well rounded. When it comes to style director Sung-hyun Byun gives the film a sleek, and cinematic look to it. Always finding creative ways to shoot on paper would be mundane scenes. For example, when Sol Kyung-Gu is getting beaten by police officers outside of an office. Byun shows the sequence play out from the inside of the office out the window, and follows it to be more visually interesting. The film biggest set piece in the middle portion of the movie has a huge between two gangs. He doesn’t simply keep the camera in place with a wide view to make everything visible. A few time during this sequence he’ll have a take go on longer than expected to show the chaotic fighting, have the camera follow actor Siwan as he gets tossed across the room, and in a instance he rotates the camera full circle during the brawl. A rotation shot that could been seen as self indulgent, and distracting, but works thanks to his excellent eye for detail.
Im Si-wan falls into the category of what some viewers familiar with Asian movies would call a pretty boy. Typically this is an in-circle phrase for Asian cinema insistence to cast “pretty boys”, typically pop stars, in leading roles they shouldn’t be in from gangsters, to criminals, serial killers, and so forth that would make it difficult to accept them as the character. Asian cinema isn’t the only film industry guilty of this so I typically pay it no attention. Especially here since the physical appearance of Im Si-wan works in his favor. It’s easy to buy from him that he gets drawn to the allure of the criminal world. He plays his role exceptionally well, especially during his dramatic turns as some of his work in this movie. Combining a certain level of vulnerability, or arrogance within his performance.
Sol Kyung-Gu is another standout. His role is more complicated to decipher. He’s able to demonstrate a more caring side within his portrayal despite him playing a character aiming to be number one through any means. Expressing his character enjoyment in his dangerous business weather it be beating up criminals, or climbing up the ranks. Displaying a ruthless within him, even when coming off as playful. Yet, he never loses his darker side whenever on screen with Im Si-wan. When together, they both bounce of each other naturally. The only other actor with a noteworthy performance is Kim Hee-Won. A more playful performance to counteract Sol Kyung-Gu subtle performance. Kim Hee-Won gets most of the film jokes, and delivers them perfectly thanks to his comedic timing. Despite being the most lighthearted among the cast, he too is able to dramatic pick up the slack when it comes time to it. Other actors do just as well in their more straight laced role. Jeon Hye-Jin who plays the police chief, and Lee Kyoung-Young who plays the criminal boss play them straight. Despite that, both are given enough time to leave an impression.
The Merciless was a tough watch for the sole reason it’s the kind of movie that could have been more, but didn’t know how to. It’s unfortunate because you have half of a good movie, and the other half that derails it with a misguided direction in writing. It wants to be a movie that appeals to the general crowd, and cinephiles alike, but just end disappointing both. Lavish production values, good performances, and very little, but decently action sequences barely helps it raise above the mediocrity of similar movies. However, when the writing unwillingness to commit to taking risks, and gamble big prevented The Merciless from possibly being another classic piece of crime cinema.