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Train to Busan Presents: Peninsula

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 09/05/20 08:48:44

"Day of the Dead: Fury Road"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

2016's "Train to Busan" was one of the most electrifying zombie movies to hit screens in years, a rare unique twist on the genre with impeccable, creative action and a pretty terrific cast. Filmmaker Yeon Sang-ho's third trip to that world (including animated prequel "Seoul Station") doesn't quite have the same electricity of his previous films, but it's still a fast-moving thrill ride that deserves a better time to get some time on the big screen.

It's been four years since a saliva-spread virus caused the rapid collapse of South Korea, with Army captain Han Jeong-Seok (Gang Dong-Won) one of the last out, driving his sister's family to a boat and passing by a family whose car was broken down by the side of the road. Four years later, Jeong-Seok is an unwelcome refugee in Hong Kong, doing odd jobs for gangsters until he and brother-in-law Goo Chul-Min (Kim Do-Yoon) are made a tempting offer - the gangsters have bribed their way past the blockade to loot the country, and there's a truck with twenty million dollars just waiting to be driven to Incheon, and the four-person team can keep half if they make it. Of course, they're only thinking of the zombies, not aware of "Unit 631", a group of soldiers who have become local warlords, or wild dogs like the family headed by Min-Jung (Lee Jung-Hyun), the mother Jeong-Seok drove past four years ago.

"Zombie-movie heist" is such a great hook that I almost wish Yeon had started from that rather than just picked the getaway car up halfway; he doesn't even really take the time to lay out what skills the various members of the original crew bring to the table (at least one doesn't even get a name before becoming zombie chow). Even if it takes a while to get the full, real cast of characters assembled, though, there's something very enjoyable about having such a mission-focused situation and the epidemic having had a while to settle in; a lot of zombie movies are running off the same template that it's fun to see Yeon play with the formula and as a result break away from the most familiar variations: It's got accidentally-prescient material about immigrants from the epicenter facing prejudice from their new neighbors, kids for whom this sort of life is normal, and the possibility that determination will not necessarily give way to despair.

Of course, that determination can often be the driest part of the movie even if it comes attached to the folks who are the best at action, which is the case here - Gong Dong-Won is one of the biggest action stars in South Korea and he's at the very least a good enough screen fighter to believably blast his way through a crowd of the undead and/or rogue soldiers, but between that, he doesn't have a lot to do but look guilty and determined. Same goes for Lee Jung-Hyun as fierce mama bear Min-Jung - she moves well and you wouldn't want Lee to approach the character any other way, but their scenes are never as lively as those of the villains: Koo Gyo-Hwan's Captain Seo is unraveling as the sort of upper-class officer who is not really fit for actual combat, versus Kim Min-Jae as the sadistic Sergeant Hwang, and Kim Kyu-Baek almost sympathetic as the quartermaster running interference between them. The biggest kick comes from Min-Jung's kids, though - Lee Ye-Won brings constant energy as a seven-year-old who doesn't know that using her RC cars to distract the zombies she scans for using night-vision goggles isn't normal, even when needling her sister Joon-i (Lee Re), a somewhat sour teenager who clearly learned how to drive by playing video games.

And good for her, because if Yeon isn't quite doing "zombie heist", he's got an eye on The Fast, The Furious, and the Undead, with a last act full of car chases through abandoned streets with hordes of zombies serving as obstacles. There's a moment or two when the CGI ghouls seem especially weightless, but it's an acceptable trade-off for how much smashing and skidding Yeon and his car stunt crew go in for, delivering a high-octane finale that offers lots of grinding metal, opportunity for nasty bites, and more than a few chances for Gang Dong-Won, Lee Jung-Hyun, and Joon-i's stunt driver to show their action chops. The film has never been slow, but Yeon piles it on for the finale, and he's got the same terrific eye for how to use the screen and set a pace that he showed in the first Train to Busan.

There's not a whole lot of his early, dark animated films readily visible in "Peninsula" - it's sometimes hard to believe that the guy who made "The King of Pigs" and "The Fake" is the same one who made his live-action adventures - or any moment that catches the audience's breath like a couple in "Train", but it's a heck of a ride despite coming out at the absolute worst time to release a movie about a country devastated by a highly-transmissible disease. Here's hoping we get another chance to see it on the big screen once things are something closer to normal.

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