Revenge flicks have been done and redone to death. Man loves woman, woman is killed, man avenges woman’s death. Who avenges whom is interchangeable, but the formula stays the same for a reason: It works. What sets “I Saw the Devil” apart from a standard revenge flick is the intense emotion running through it.
Dedicated secret agent Soo-hyun’s (Lee Byung-hun, “RED 2”) plans to marry his pregnant wife, Joo-yeon (San-ha Oh). While he’s on a job one night, Joo-yeon is killed by psychopathic bus driver Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik, “Lucy”). With nothing left to lose, Soo-hyun begins a deadly game of cat and mouse to exact his revenge.
“I Saw the Devil” could, in some respects, be called a road movie. Soo-hyun chases Kyung-chul across a big stretch of Korea, meeting people who give new meaning to the word “depraved.” With this travel comes wild fluctuations in tone and style, but thanks to the deft direction of Kim Ji-woon, it never feels jarring.
One sequence in particular is exemplary. At one point, a cab driver picks up Kyung-chul while he’s down on his luck. Things devolve in the car and knives are pulled. In a spinning single take, director Ji-woon watches the carnage unfold from 360 degrees. By the time it’s over, the viewer is left breathless. Interjections like this sequence keep the action fresh.
Speaking of action, every mile covered brings about a new and intensely gory set piece. Where the first act is a surprising emotional gut punch, the second is a visceral thrill ride. If it weren’t for the incredible performances of Lee Byung-hun and Choi Min-sik, these sequences wouldn’t have half the kick they do.
But thanks to a solid screenplay and actors brave enough to plumb its bloody depths, every gunshot becomes teeth-rattling. With a hard violent shell and a gooey heart, “I Saw the Devil” becomes something transcendent in the revenge genre. Make no mistake: The movie is taken with violence. It’s simply filthy at every turn. After all, watching two monsters go head-to-head is bound to dirty up the place.
This hard-hearted revenge flick doesn’t clean up its mess anyway. It forces viewers to look at who started the violence, who continued it, and whether or not they’re that different. If Soo-hyun’s penchant for cruelty is any indication, they may not be. But does his cruelty reach Kyung-chul’s heights? Deciding just who the devil is in “I Saw the Devil” is a big part of the fun, and viewers with the stomach for it will find themselves more than satisfied.