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by Jay Seaver

"This combination should be more fun."
3 stars

You might reasonably expect a fusion of palace intrigue and supernatural action to be a lot more exciting than "Rampant" turns out to be, or at the very least more crazy. Maybe that's an inevitable peril of setting this sort of horror movie in a time when people mostly believed in demons - they are just not going to yell "what the hell?" when discovering that they're in the middle of this crazy mash-up the way the audience is - but either half could certainly be a better take on its genre.

As things start, the Joseon kingdom is already on shaky ground - Kng Lee Jo (Kim Eui-sung) is weak and easily manipulated by cabinet minister Kim Ja-joon (Jang Dong-gun) and fortune-telling concubine Jo So-yong (Seo Ji-hye), enough that Crown Prince Lee Young (Kim Tae-woo) is supporting a revolt, something he knows is dangerous enough that he's written brother Ganglim (Hyun-bin) to bring his pregnant wife Kyungbin (Han Ji-eun), to safety in Qing. But when Ganglim and servant Hak-su (Jeong Man-sik) arrive, the port town of Jemulpo is abandoned - at least until nightfall, when the zombies that Young's aide Park Jong-sa (Jo Woo-jin) and sister Deok-hee (Lee Sun-bin) have been defending the town from come out of hiding.

There's a couple ways this can go, ideally - even if the filmmakers don't go the full From Dusk Til Dawn route of not springing the genre change on the audience without warning, there's usually a point where the viewer gets caught up enough in the conventional part of the story that the strange catches them by surprise. Rampant never quite manages that - it dives full into zombie stuff early on and then steps back to the nobles which is never quite so fast-moving. Writer Hwang Jo-yoon eventually stitches both halves into a single story that doesn't feel too much like cheating but only fitfully ever has either half feel like it's doing anything special, beyond being combined with the other.

That's in part because it's a pretty bland group we're dealing with: A prince who doesn't really want to serve, a regicidal eunuch who never seems to really be enjoying his treachery (or flustered when things seem out of control), a blank slate of a princess, and a pretty peasant girl who is good with a bow. They're expected and predictable and the cast embodies them well enough, but they never zing or give off a palpable "oh, man, they're super-screwed now" vibe. Hyun-bin handles whatever is asked of him in the moment, even Ganglim has something of a zigzagging arc, and Lee Sun-bin a spiky-enough complement as Deok-hee. Jang Dong-gun is interestingly cool as Ja-joon, although he gets a bit more fun when given a little opportunity to snarl.

On top of that, the action is kind of dull itself. There are some surprisingly creepy quiet moments - a nearly turned zombie looking pathetic while dressed to impress, a horde hiding from daylight - but they don't build things up to feel more dangerous, rather than less. The fighting is decent, if occasionally a bit choppy, with roughly as many decapitations as you might expect. Despite the intricate plans that reveal themselves in the last act, where the plan is laid out and has goals and obstacles the viewer knows, one doesn't feel the well-established geography one should. It's a bit vague when it should be more specific.

Maybe it's a lot more fun and clever to folks who know Korean history, the exact right place to put a zombie outbreak. But even if so, it certainly seems like a lot less than the filmmakers could have gotten from this sort of mashup.

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originally posted: 11/05/18 15:15:40
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  02-Nov-2018 (MA)

Directed by
  Sung-hoon Kim

Written by
  Jo-yoon Hwang

  Hyun Bin
  Dong-Gun Jang
  Eui-sung Kim
  Ju-hyuk Kim
  Woo-jin Jo
  Dal-hwan Jo

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