It would be inaccurate to call Unstoppable a Korean remake of Taken, though it wouldn’t be too far off. Actually, I’d watch this thriller (not to be confused with the Denzel Washington-Chris Pine thriller by that title a few years ago) before I watched the Liam Neeson film again, and part of the reason is the acting.
Ma Dong-seok (here billed as Don Lee) portrays Kang Dong-chul, a fish vendor at a busy marketplace in Seoul. Nicknamed “Angry Bull” as a teenager, he has put his violent past behind him thanks to his pretty and newly pregnant wife Ji-soo (Song Ji-hyo). She becomes angry with him when he makes what looks like the latest in a string of bad investments, this one in Alaskan king crab futures. However, it’s neither his debts nor his past but rather a minor fender bender with a mobster’s car that causes Ji-soo to be kidnapped by sex traffickers. Though the gangsters leave him with a pile of money to compensate him, Dong-chul is having none of it, and he teams up with his best friend Chun-sik (Park Ji-hwan) and a bumbling but well-informed private detective (Kim Min-jae) to bring her back.
Where lots of Korean male lead actors are classically beautiful, the burly, muscular 47-year-old Ma/Lee looks like a guy who has spent his life working on the docks. His sleepy eyelids and massive frame have led to an enviable career as a character actor in Korean movies: The Good the Bad the Weird, Veteran, Train to Busan, both of the Along With the Gods films. If you saw him in his one previous lead role in the arm-wrestling movie Champion from earlier this year, you also know that his English is pretty good. (He grew up in California.) I’m not sure why he hasn’t tried his luck in Hollywood, since he looks convincing throwing a bad guy through a plate glass window and also has decent acting chops as well.
First-time writer-director Kim Min-ho conjures up an ingenious scene when the mob boss (Kim Seung-oh) blackmails Dong-chul into killing one of his own incompetent employees, and the hero has to think of a way out of it. Kim doesn’t forget to cut the action sequences with comedy, including one sequence where Chun-sik tries to imitate his friend’s angry face and another where the detective accepts a 5-percent cut of the crab business as payment — he knows nothing about seafood, but when he sees the English word “king” in the contract, he figures it must be good. All told, the shaggy straightforwardness of Unstoppable makes it feel like one of those Hollywood action flicks from the 1980s that starred Stallone or Schwarzenegger. Transplanted to another culture and another time, that’s not the worst thing.
Starring Don Lee and Song Ji-hyo. Written and directed by Kim Min-ho. Not rated.