Big budget Korean remake of the seminal Japanese anime, ‘Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade’, ‘Illang’ looks fantastic, often thrills, and features some incredible and expertly staged action but suffers from pacing issues and a lukewarm emotional core.
A near future Korea sees the North and South on the cusp on reunification amidst nationwide unrest, terrorist threats and waring police factions. The Wolf Brigade, a special government unit who rule with an iron hand (and scare the populace into submission with their frightening armour and heavy artillery!), are hot on the trail of known terrorist faction The Sect, when their best soldier Im (Gang Dong-Won) hesitates when he has one of The Sect in his sights: a young girl who sets off the bomb she’s carrying nearly killing Im and his unit. Forced to step back from duty while he recuperates and his superiors decide what to do with him, Im reflects on that he may not be the ruthless killer he was trained to be. As penance, he’s instructed to get close to the sister of the bomber, Lee (Han Hyo-Joo), as she may be key to infiltrating The Sect. But as he gets close to her, Im feels emotions he thought long dead and as he digs deeper uncovers corruption and double-crossing across all factions: both on the side of the law and those who oppose it.
Transposing pretty much the same story from ‘Jin-Roh’, ‘Illang’ sticks pretty close to the anime in terms of story and even replicates a large chunk of its imagery to live action. Toning down the futuristic elements somewhat, Kim Jee-Woon’s film still features the complex political plotting and powerfully unsettling imagery of ‘The Wolf Brigade’ anime (there are some particularly intense and scary scenes featuring the Brigade and their glowing red eyes in an early action scene set within the sewer system), but it also comes with the muddling and sometimes confusing plotting that marred the original. Over the lengthy running time, the plot does get a little labyrinth-like as the various warring factions double cross one another several times and it’s always hard to care for the outcome of the budding relationship between Im and Lee: the two playing everything a bit too cool and aloof. In fact, everything is played so seriously and po-faced proceedings, when not ignited with thrilling action, tend to drag somewhat despite the cast’s best efforts.
Thankfully what saves the film is the incredible action. Kim Jee-Woon ramps it up from the anime to deliver several sustained set-pieces that are slickly structured, violently executed, and escalate in tension and mayhem as they play out. There’s a thrilling scene set in and around Seoul’s Namsa Tower and Kim Jee-Woon returns us to the sewers for a thrilling climax featuring the Wolf Brigade armour going ballistic on a squad of heavily armed bad guys. Some may be disappointed the Wolf Brigade suits aren’t utilised more (them taking a back seat to a lot of the action!) but when used (through ace practical effects and suit design) they’re thrilling and add a sleek futuristic vibe to the action. Kim Jee-Woon may not have as tight a grasp on proceedings as he had on his other hits (‘A Bittersweet Life’, ‘The Good The Bad and The Weird’, ‘Age of Shadows’) but he’s lost none of his dynamism in the action department. Hell, a training scene is mounted with such verve that it’s as good as any of the other set-pieces.
A mixed bag for sure and die-hard fans of the original may not warm to it but ‘Illang: The Wolf Brigade’ still has a lot to offer not least in delivering propulsive futuristic firepower action.