South Korea is no stranger to action thrillers rooted in a milieu where an unknown virus spreads across the general populace like wildfire. COVID-19 has inspired several more films set in uncontrolled environments, with authorities at their wit’s end. The latest Korean instalment of this popular trope is Netflix's original, Carter. Byung-Gil Jung’s adrenaline-inducing, nonstop action extravaganza is a John Wick meets Train to Busan meets Kate kind of knockoff, with enough elements of Resident Evil thrown in.
The storyline is a ham-handed hodgepodge of these aforementioned titles, but one thing is beyond reproach, and that is the exceptionally-directed fight sequences and stellar stunt choreography. The 360-degree, point-of-view shots, be it hand-to-hand combat, weapons discharge, chase scenes across busy streets and solitary train tracks, jungle warfare or long-drawn-out aerial assault (aircraft and helicopter), the action directors/stunt coordinators/stuntpersons involved in the production are the sole reason to watch Carter.
In addition to the outrageous yet highly realistic (for the most part) action, the cinematography (both on level ground and high in the sky) is, as expected, quite superb! There are parts that evoke a feeling of being right in the thick of it along with our protagonist as he picks off the approaching horde one body at a time. The rather ludicrous narrative involves an intertwining of far too many elements: temporary amnesia, a microchip in the brain, allegiance to one’s country, familial ties, parental responsibility and sacrifice, international conspiracy and espionage, deep distrust between the North and South and a strange pandemic that kickstarts this ensuing circle of madness. The mediocre and unoriginal plot is overshadowed by a no holds barred approach to the film’s genre. This approach, which begins within minutes of the opening, refuses to take a backseat all the way up to the end credits.
It isn’t an ingenious vision, to begin with, but I guess that’s not what Byung-Gil Jung was going for. A man wakes up in a battered and bloodied motel room to realise he has lost all his memory. How he got there, what his name is and why the CIA is knocking down his door are questions he is grappling with. What’s worse is that there is an audio device embedded deep within his ear, giving him step-by-step instructions for survival. The woman’s voice tells him to trust her or else his wife and child back in North Korea will be in jeopardy; a family he cannot recall.
He takes his name (Carter Lee) at face value, and with seemingly nothing to lose goes along with what the voice has to say. The baddies come thick and fast (leaving him no choice but to kill or be killed) as he pieces together what little he can along the way. An unknown, deadly virus called the DMZ (originating from the Korean Demilitarised Zone) has swept both Korea and the United States.
A renowned Korean epidemiologist has found a cure through his young daughter but has since gone missing. The South and North throw slanderous accusations at one another even as rumours of a destabilising coup do the rounds. US Intelligence swoops in to protect its own interests. The child is of utmost priority. But where is she? Where is the doctor? Carter’s suicidal espionage mission to secure the girl and bring her to North Korea is being led by an unreliable voice inside his ear, a voice he is unsure of from the very beginning.
If you give too much weight to the plot and its wild inconsistencies, this one will turn out to be a major disappointment. The key is to take the story with a pinch of salt and marvel at the barrage of action scenes unfolding onscreen. It would be unfair to fault Joo Won and the rest of the cast in any way because Carter isn’t written for its characters. I’d liken Byung-Gil Jung’s effort to many of Tony Jaa’s Thai films, where the stunt choreography is so good that it’s hard to look beyond it.
Carter doesn’t even provide you with a minute for a breather, as it’s one death-defying sequence after another – an assembly line of combat techniques if you will. In that regard, the writers and director know their product and know it well. And they milk what’s working to good effect. The film presents a mediocre narrative with elements lifted from a variety of similar fares of the past. If you pay too much attention to that instead of Carter’s out-and-out daredevilry, you’re going to end up thoroughly disappointed. Sitting back and going with the flow may be the better option here!
Director: Byung-gil Jung
Cast: Joo Won, Kim Bo-Min, Jeong So-ri, Sung-Jae Lee
Streaming on: Netflix