The Merciless Review
Sometimes a director tries a little too hard to keep the audience on their toes. We all like a good twist in the tale but there comes a point where the repeated use of a plot device ends up tying the story into a knotted mess. And so it is with director Byun Sung-hyun's The Merciless, a South Korean gangster flick that doesn't quite know when to stop dishing out its surprises. Aside from the plot gimmicks, for those who have seen many of the better films in the genre over the past decade or so, there will a dawning sense of familiarity about much of what this film entails.
Trying to keep up with the rapid-fire double crossing are the two leads, Sul Kang-gul and Yim Si-wan, who play Jae-ho and Hyun-su respectively. On top of the hidden motivations that drive almost every character, Byun also manipulates the timeline, jumping backwards and forwards which somehow avoids adding to the confusion. Jae-ho is a high-ranking gang member currently serving time and running the show, including the prison guards, inside the jail complex. Fresh-faced Hyun-su, who looks like he should just be graduating into high school, is a new inmate who quickly makes a name for himself. The pair buddy up and make plans to continue their partnership once they return to the outside world.
We learn that Hyun-su is actually a cop sent deep undercover by his ruthless police chief boss Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin). This is one of the many twists and turns that Byun has in-store for a two hour run time that never knows when to stop ducking and diving. It is nigh on impossible to pin down the direction of the story but even if we have little idea, Byun retains just enough control to give us confidence that he does. He adds some nice stylistic flourishes to the energetic flow of the plot, aided by smartly choreographed set-pieces, and dressed up by Hyung Rae Cho’s smooth cinematography.
What The Merciless sorely lacks is character depth. Both Jae-ho and Hyun-su are handled well by their actors to strike up a meaningful friendship, but the lack of substance serves to slowly undermine its showy style. Tragic back stories are lamely offered in exchange for our sympathy, and interest begins to wane the further we disappear down the rabbit hole of a story. The irony being that the harder Byun tries to keep us involved the further we become separated from a reason to care. It's a shame because the director has a talented cast at his disposal and yet his constant attempts to impress come at the expense of getting the basics right.