(Bong Joon-Ho, 2013)
This is the kind of action filmmaking that reminds you of just how good action filmmaking can be. Set onboard an immense high-tech train circling the planet after a man-made ice age kills all life on earth, Bong's adaptation of the French comic le Transperceneige is a darkly satirical epic, filled with ideas, beautiful spectacle, and awesome action scenes.
The train is an obviously allegorical creation. Travelling the world for seventeen years, it houses the wealthy in the front while the poor masses live in cramped misery at the back. They eat jellylike protein bars and bow down before the guns of the guards, and live with tales of failed revolts in the past. Curtis (Chris Evans) has different ideas. Supported by Edgar (Jamie Bell) and advised by Gilliam (John Hurt), he plots to storm the gates separating the tail of the train from the crucial middle sections, where he will release Namgoong Mimsu (Song Kang-ho) who designed the gates. After that the plan is to work their way through the many carriages until they can take the engine and overthrow the mysterious Wilford (Ed Harris). Standing in their way are dozens of armed and ruthless guards, led by Mason (Tilda Swinton).
Bong films this story using lots of tight closeups of grim, shadowed faces, and manages to communicate just how claustrophobic life on the train might be without it ever feeling overly confined. In fact, the action sequences - beautifully shot and brutally visceral - are expansive and even lyrical at times. There is an understanding of just what works in genre cinema on display here; in the dynamics of the conflicts, in the reversals and surprises in each action scene, in the cutting and compositional choices. The cast play characters who reveal themselves in short bursts of dialogue. Evans is growing as a lead and convinces absolutely here, and the mix of acting styles represented by his clash with Swinton and Song does a good job of expressing the mix of lifestyles aboard the train.
The issues it touches upon - global warming, sustainability, the class system, even civic responsibility - are implicit in the narrative, but despite a running time over two hours it never feels overlong. Instead it throws new ideas at the screen in more or less every scene, particularly once Evans and his dwindling band reach the forward sections of the train and the excess of the lifestyles of Wilford's followers is revealed.
In common with much Korean cinema, there is wild tonal variation here, with shifts from humour to melodrama to ultraviolence occurring within seconds, but it always works, partly because the setting is so consistently textured and the characters so emotionally grounded.
In its ambition and its confidence it is admirable. In the execution of its action scenes, it is exhilarating.