A short video on Twitter was all I needed to get excited about Byung-gil Jung's Carter, his long-awaited follow-up to The Villainess. Not that the films are directly related, but they obviously share the same DNA. After a short burst of hype, followed by an even bigger stream of complaints and disappointment, I realized this could be truly something great. It took me a while to get to it, making shorter films is not something South Korea is particularly good at, but this was definitely worth the wait, especially if you share my soft spot for maximalist cinema.
Carter is a film in the vein of Hardcore Henry, an abundantly hysterical, (fake) single-take action flick that puts you right in the middle of the chaos. When Hardcore Henry was released I somehow expected a slew of similar films to follow in its wake, but that never really happened (the window of opportunity hasn't completely closed though, it took longer between The Blair Witch Project and the explosion of found footage films). Jung's The Villainess was one of the only high-profile films that attempted to match the intensity of Hardcore Henry. While Jung got close on his first try, he learned from his mistakes and put all his energy into releasing an upgraded version.
What makes this film such a hard sell to wider audiences is Jung's choice to prioritize action potential over technical excellence. In order to go even bigger and crazier, a lot of the cuts and stitches are way more obvious in Carter. The illusion of a single-take shot is continuously challenged, in return, you get some of the maddest and most ambitious action choreography ever attempted in a film. It's a fair (and even preferable) trade-off for someone who adores a maximalist aesthetic, but if you care more about cohesion and immersion, pretty much the entire film will be a jarring experience.
The plot is surprisingly complex for an action film of this allure. And it's not just the lack of narration or exposition that makes it tough to follow, there are way too many parties involved and there's too much going on besides the action to keep a straight focus. You can just keep track of the broader outline though, which makes this a film about a military guy who lost his memory and is tasked to rescue a kid in order to save the world from a major pandemic outbreak. High art it is not, and the political angles don't really add much value, but for those who care, there's quite a bit of plot to unravel.
Visually speaking, Carter is a film with a crystal clear vision. Jung wanted the single-take experience without the limitations of single takes. With action choreography so ambitious it was always going to be a mission impossible, but considering the challenges Jung faced, the result is nothing less than spectacular. Yes, it's visible where shots are stitched together and the CG work is pretty obvious, but the effect is there and as a result, the film is a breathtaking rush from start to finish. Jung took a big risk, and it paid off. I wish more directors would dare to take chances like that.
The music was ... there, I suppose. Maybe it was because of the visual intensity, maybe the score was simply too plain and average, but I didn't really notice much of the music while watching. I didn't actively miss it either, but I can only imagine what a more tailored and pronounced score could have added. Skipping through the film afterward, I noticed the music was mostly filler to cover the silence by providing some background noise. As a way to keep things hectic and chaotic, it served its purpose, but a lot more could've been done with it.
The cast isn't too great either, except for Joo Won, who really holds his own in the lead role. He's pretty buff, he has the necessary screen presence, he commands respect, and he is nimble enough to pull off the stunts. A solid action performance in other words. The rest of the cast is just a flurry of actors who whizz by. To be fair to them, it's not easy to make a lasting impression when the camera is darting around like a mad wasp, severely limiting the space for any kind of characterization. I don't really see it as a big negative, except that the role of the main villain is a tad boring for a film like this.
Carter was always destined to fail. Fans of South Korean cinema are bound to struggle with the film's singular vision and extreme maximalist styling choices, it's simply not something they do often (nor well). But it's the exact reason why I still take chances on films, even when the cards are stacked against them. Carter is by far one of the purest and most ambitious action films I've seen, and while it may not deliver 100% on everything it set out to do, there's a boldness here that trumps technical proficiency, favoring adrenaline over everything else.
People often complain contemporary cinema is safe and boring (not in the least when talking about Netflix productions), but when a film like this appears and challenges the status quo, you begin to understand why studios keep putting out safe and boring filler projects. While you can find positive reviews, they are mostly buried under heaps of negativity. The fact is, if you're an action fan and you love a good roller-coaster ride that commits to the genre from start to finish, Carter is one of the most exhilarating films I could recommend. It's also one of the easier accessible films (as it's a Netflix original), so give it a fair chance. At least it's something different from the norm.