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Big Match
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by Jay Seaver

"Great in the opening rounds, but wears down a bit."
3 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Big Match" is really a mess, the sort of movie which starts from a decent action-movie premise and sort of has the right idea about what to do with it, but could use a lot more commitment. Yes, this is mainly a way to get the hero from one action scene to another without a lot of fuss, but imagine how much more exciting it could be if it was tightened up and really thrilling?

It starts out by introducing Choi Iko (Lee Jung-jae), who started his athletic career as a soccer player but wound up becoming a mixed-martial arts fighter known as "zombie" for after being booted from the league, trained by his big brother Yeong-ho (Lee Sung-min). Iko's next match is postponed when his opponent tests positive for drugs, but he's going to be busy: His promoter is killed with Yeong-ho the prime suspect, although there's enough suggesting Iko's involvement for the police to bring him in. That's where he's given a headset and told to escape by "Ace" (Sin Ha-kyun), who operates a top-secret gambling cartel where the elite can bet on how well folks like Iko can evade capture.

Here's a funny thing about action movies that aren't actually built around their stars' screen-fighting capabilities: The quality of the action can often drop off over the course of the movie as it ramps up in scale. For instance, the early bits of Iko trying to escape from rooms full of cops without actually hurting anyone not only have a sort of Jackie Chan feeling to how nimble and whimsical they are, but they're shot clearly and cleverly and give Lee a chance to display a lot of personality in the middle of a fight. What comes after gets bigger but is seldom as well-shot as those - the bigger action scenes have more moving parts, whether it be waves of goons or special effects, and the bigger set-pieces threaten to swallow Iko. They're still plenty fun - director Choi Ho and his co-writers do escalate well and come up with some creative ideas - but each one is a little less exciting than the last, making them feel a little bit more disappointing than they are.

Fortunately, as the action starts to fall off, pop star BoA (playing a driver with a bad attitude and skills of her own) starts to come to life, giving Lee Jung-jae someone entertaining and unpredictable to play off; she's enjoyably tart enough that it the audience won't much worry about whether or not she changes sides so long as she sticks around. Lee Sung-min does a good job to make a hostage role funny in a way that reinforces the brotherly bond between the Chois, and there are a bunch of entertaining smaller parts, from Ra Mi-ran as Yeong-ho's wife, to the various cops and gangsters who think something much more reasonable is happening.

Neither the action nor the supporting cast ever particularly overwhelms Lee Jung-jae's not inconsiderable charm. though, which is strong enough that one wonders about the background described: We're told that he red-carded his way out of the league in soccer and is called "zombie" in MMA, but he honestly seems way too nice for that most of the time. That's not really a problem for a movie looking to be fast-paced and light-hearted, and Lee is pretty good at the physical parts of the role as well.

The filmmakers never lose sight of how they want things to be fun, as the reversals come quickly and situations just get crazier. Director Choi and company have fun with the details, my favorite being how the music on the soundtrack almost always sounds like the theme of a sports highlight show. It makes the movie good enough to enjoy, even if it's not a great action movie.

The big problem, I think, is Ace. Part of it is that Shin Ha-kyun gives the sort of manic-villain performance that comes across as trying too hard except in exceedingly rare cases, and this is not one of them. More to the point, though, he and his hacker Guru (Choi Woo-sik) are too omnipotent, all too often creating situations where Iko seemingly escapes as much because Ace and Guru got distracted and opted to move on to something else than an actual decisive conclusion. There are also hints of guys above Ace, but not enough to make that part interesting.

Still, if you're looking for a couple hours of fast-paced, light action, you can do worse. It's seldom quite as much fun as it is at the start, but it's never dull, either.

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originally posted: 09/01/15 13:41:09
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Ho Choi

Written by
  Roy Kim

  Jung-Jae Lee
  Ha-kyun Shin
  Sung-min Lee

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