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Warriors of the Dawn
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by Jay Seaver

"Good enough not to have to call for substitutes."
3 stars

The story at the center of this film is not bad - a frightened crown prince trying to stay ahead of a Japanese invasion has only a squadron of mercenaries to support him. All must come to recognize a greater purpose, and it turns out that the prince is, in his way, serving the same purpose. It's a solid enough base that basic competence will make it enjoyable enough, although it would be really nice if it had a bit more to offer.

This one takes place in 1592, opening with a minor skirmish on the Chinese/Korean border being fought by "proxy soldiers", men who take money to serve out the military service of those with money, officially taking their name for the duration. Their leader (Lee Jung-jae) is thus referred to as "Tow-woo", though it is not his name. As they're fighting this battle, a much larger one is about to begin, with Japan invading and quickly taking Seoul and Pyongyang. King Seonjo (Park Ho-san) immediately makes plans to flee to China to seek reinforcements, but since they must be seen making at least a token effort to defend and govern their nation, he appoints squeamish, inexperienced bastard son Gwang-hae (Yeo Jin-gu) crown prince, with orders to move his portion of the split court to Gonggye along with a relatively small detachment. It includes Tow's squad, although promises to let them take exams to become official soldiers may not make a difference to those like "Goksu" (Kim Mu-yul) - one of many proxies whose contract might not get them all the way to Gonggye, given that Tow has advised a mountain route to avoid easy attack by General Tarobe (Park Hae-joon) and a mysterious group of assassins on the plains.

For all the different things that are going on, Warriors of the Dawn is built on reliable war-movie themes: The mercenaries who eventually decide to become part of a greater purpose, the higher-caste officers coming to respect the commoners serving underneath them, battles on open and wooded terrains. The key, here, is that Gwanghae is in a very real way the same as the proxies, an expendable substitute for someone of higher rank and power. Director Jeong Yoon-chul and co-writer Shin Do-young do a fair job of not harping on these themes with obvious speeches - the closest they come is a conversation between Tow and young handmaid Deog (Esom) about how both of them have, in their way, been forced into service to support their families. It's not fancy, but it works

The main cast doesn't try to get too fancy with it, either. For much of the movie, Lee Jung-jae and Kim Mu-yul are playing something close to the same character, differing only slightly in their degree of cynicism toward the start, but when the story puts some space between them, they get stronger, with Lee especially showing a gruff, reluctant charisma as Tow, never veering into anything close to overt sentimentality even as he gains a little more respect for the prince. Yeo Jin-gu is given better material than expected, selling how this character is earnestly scared witless by the responsibility being placed upon him. He's got a nice chemistry with Esom's Deog; there's respect between the pair that doesn't detour the movie but could easily launch another where we spend more time on court intrigue.

The action is fairly strong, too. This is the sort of movie where a lot of people are suddenly killed by hails of arrows that come out of nowhere, though Jeong seldom seems to use this as an easy exit from a flailing scene or cutting off something more interesting. Jeong makes these sort of potential slaughters more two-sided than they might initially seem, and works the quite believable panic of some characters in so that it expands the scene in a natural way. The one time he really gets a chance to set the stage for a battle doesn't disappoint, giving the audience an old-school fortress attack.

It mostly works well enough, though it's seldom exceptional. It's probably twenty minutes or so too long, although one doesn't really feel it until the end, when what should be a lull in the final battle winds up feeling like a second siege stacked on top of the first, which is an even bigger drag because things had literally been moving until then. There's a large set of colorful minor characters that never quite steps up to become an ensemble, in some cases (like the frightened rookie at the start) disappearing once they are not immediately useful. It also turns out that not much actually comes of the band of assassins that supply most of the action throughout the film; though we get a scene saying that there won't be resolution and closing the door in that way, it's not quite as satisfying.

Overall, the action is decent, and the two or three characters that get some focus are played well. Those with a bit more interest in Korean history than me may find it more interesting. Mostly, though, it can't quite fill the epic space it's given, and doesn't grow into it as well as its potential king does.

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originally posted: 06/20/17 12:52:01
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Directed by
  Yoon-Chul Chung

Written by
  Do-young Shin
  Yoon-Chul Chung

  Jung-Jae Lee
  Mu-Yeol Kim
  Soo-bin Bae
  Dong-in Cho
  Som E.
  Sung-jun Nam

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