We critics often throw out the phrase “non-stop action” when describing a movie. It’s almost always an exaggeration because of course there are pauses here and there for storytelling and some degree of drama. But the new South Korean action-thriller “Carter” may be the closest thing you’ll find to actual non-stop action. Yes, we get brief interludes stuffed with exposition and information drops. But for the most part this thing is fists-swinging, guns-blazing, bones-cracking, and blood-splattering all the way through.
“Carter” is both ridiculous and extraordinary. It’s a fast-paced, ultra-violent action spectacle unlike anything I’ve ever scene. The goal was to frame the entire film as one single long take. There are numerous cleverly concealed cuts and they aren’t too hard to find. But ultimately the film sets out to give audiences an adrenaline-jacked experience where their eyes are never taken off the action. It’s undeniably impressive, and I’m still not sure how director Jung Byung-gil managed to pull some of his scenes off.
But while it’s unquestionably bold, there is a downside to this style of relentless full-throttle filmmaking. It can be exhausting and even suffocating at times. And I say that as someone who truly loves big action. It’s a lot for one sitting, and there were times when I just wanted to catch my breath. It’s made even tougher by its hefty 132-minute runtime. By the time “Carter” reaches its big finale, I was a bit worn down and felt like I had already seen the best action it had to offer.
To no surprise, the story is the biggest casualty in such an action-focused movie. Joo Won plays a mystery man who wakes up in a blood-soaked hotel bed with no memory of who he is or how he got there. From there it’s a frantic race to regain his identity and figure out who he can trust. Throughout the small pockets of plot we learn about a fatal DMZ virus that after thirteen days turns people into feral zombie-like killers. We learn our protagonist has a daughter who’s infected and that his mission is to retrieve a young girl and take her to a lab North Korea where her father is using an antibody in her blood to create a vaccine. Without the vaccine, our hero can’t save his own little girl.
All of that sounds like at interesting enough premise. But the problem is most of it is simply conveyed through brief info dumps. We don’t get to watch it play out or have any real dramatic moments of consequence. We get these short bits of story and then it’s off to the next action scene. This lack of attention also leaves the plot murky. For example, there’s this whole friction between North Korea, South Korea, and the CIA that is introduced early but that gets harder to follow as the movie goes on. To be honest, I quite trying.
But let’s be realistic, the huge extravagant action sequences are the movie’s bread and butter. “Carter” is an action junkie’s fantasy, and I found myself rewinding and watching some of the scenes again out of sheer amazement. The constant motion of Jung Byung-gil’s camera can be disorienting at times. But the way he captures and combines the hand-to-hand combat, the John Wick styled gunfights, and the sprawling vehicle chases is truly incredible.
And then there’s Joo Won whose physicality is mind-blowing. He may not be given a lot to do dramatically, but the steely intimidating hero more than delivers with the action. There is both a fluidity and an unbridled ferocity to his fighting which the movie utilizes to near perfection.
“Carter” is an audacious concoction that is sure to land differently for a lot of viewers. I can see some being exhilarated by the action and all-in on the movie’s grand ambition. I can see others checking out after being worn down by the unrelenting pace and incalculable body count. Me? I see both ways. I was let down by the storytelling and tired by the end. But I can’t deny the kinetic sensation brought on by action sequences and the sheer craftsmanship behind them. They are something to behold, and I would be up for more. But maybe in 90-minute form next time. “Carter” is now streaming on Netflix.