Zombies have been done time again and again. “Maggie” and “World War Z,” while not great, managed to inject some originality into the genre. “Train to Busan” combines the emotional core of “Maggie” with the third act intensity of “World War Z,” and builds on them. It’s more action than horror, but the action sequences are so propulsive that it really doesn’t matter.
The movie flirts with horror through its two hour running time. The beginning, especially, is a masterclass in apocalyptic horror. There’s no slow-build here. The movie starts at 100 and doesn’t let up until the credits roll. For a movie set on a train, that’s certainly fitting.
Seok-woo (Gong Yoo, “The Age of Shadows”), a workaholic father estranged from his daughter Soo-an (Kim Su-an, “Memories of the Sword”), agrees to take his daughter by train to live with her mother in Seoul. They board, and just before the doors close, a battered young woman climbs on and seizes, rising from the dead soon after. It doesn’t take long for all hell to break loose.
The closest comparison “Train to Busan” has in Korean cinema is “No Tears for the Dead.” The latter’s ingenious action sequences forgave its shortcomings. The same is true for “Train to Busan,” but where “No Tears” had apartment complexes to work with, “Train” only has the eponymous train. Director Yeon Sang-ho makes the most of his narrow setting.
Not one action sequence feels like another. Each utilizes the characters and environment in totally unique ways. Because of this, the movie is filled with Ooh Rah moments. Ma Dong-seok (“Exchange”) as Sang-hwa has the lion’s share of these, stealing nearly every scene he’s in.
Since “Train to Busan” has a set of well-rounded characters to fall back on, it works overtime in establishing parallels between them. Sang-hwa, a soon-to-be father, becomes the polar opposite of Seok-woo, proving more paternal every time Soo-an needs a father. Gong Yoo’s performance as Seok-woo breaks through that, however. He’s a sympathetic guy, one who’s spent so long buying his daughter’s love that he’s forgotten to earn it.
At its most elemental, their relationship is the movie’s emotional through line. Strangely, it nearly kills the movie. A climactic moment near the end comes off as maudlin and emotionally manipulative. What’s worse, the scene directly after it does what its predecessor tried to do, only much better. And just like that, the movie’s climax feels pointless. That can be a tough pill to swallow.
“Train to Busan,” at its heart, is a rip-roaring action adventure movie long on thrills and short on chills. With action sequences as well-directed as these, however, viewers won’t miss those chills.Taking the best parts of “Maggie,” “World War Z” and “No Tears for the Dead,” “Train to Busan” becomes a resonant meditation on class warfare and family. Just don’t get in the movie’s way, it won’t let up. Thank God it doesn’t.