Sunday, July 06, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Cold Eyes

It is not the most social division of the police force, so chief detective Hwang’s ticky, standoffish new recruit should feel right at home. However, the passivity of surveillance will be an issue for her. Nevertheless, her eyes and memory will be needed to take down a master criminal and his crew in Cho Ui-seok & Kim Byung-seo’s Cold Eyes (trailer here), an inspired Korean remake of Johnnie To’s Eye in the Sky, which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

Ironically, during her rehearsal shadowing assignment, Detective Ha Yoon-joo and Hwang were rubbing shoulders with James, the mysterious mastermind of a gang of armed robbers. He is never personally on-the-scene, preferring to observe from a carefully selected rooftop. Their last bank heist has the force particularly rattled, so Hwang and his boss, director Lee are under pressure to produce. Scanning surveillance footage, they practice of form of police work resembling a game of Concentration. When they turn up a suspect, Ha will have her initiation by fire, trailing him through the city. Of course, the closer they get to James, the more the stakes rise.

Despite all the time Hwang sits in surveillance vans, Eyes is decidedly action-driven. Co-directors Cho and Kim truly master the near-misses and sudden disappearances involved in tailing suspects. They also have a knack for spectacular shootouts and public safety-defying car chases. Yet, it is the film’s neurotic vibe that really sets it apart from the cops-and-robbers field.

Sol Kyung-gu, this year’s NYAFF Star Asia Award recipient, powers the film with slow-burning intensity. His off-kilter wiliness and rumpled soul distinguishes Hwang from just about every other movie copper, except maybe Han Hyo-joo’s socially awkward Ha. They are quite a pair, developing some appealingly eccentric mentor-protégé chemistry. Counter-balancing her oddball colleagues, Jin Kyung adds some class and authority as Director Lee. Although largely impassive throughout, Jung Woo-sung shark-like vibe works in context for the ruthless James.

Cold Eyes is one of the few cop thrillers that genuinely values brains, but hand-to-hand combat skills still come in handy. The execution is slickly stylish, while Cho’s adapted screenplay fits all its moving pieces together quite cleverly. It should even satisfy To fanatics, especially considering an amusing cameo linking it to the original source film. Tight, lean, and unusually cerebral, Cold Eyes is highly recommended for action fans when it screens tomorrow (7/7) and Thursday (7/10) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of the tribute to Sol Kyung-gu at this year’s NYAFF.