The Merciless (4 stars)

The Merciless

Taut and visceral crime thriller from South Korean director Byun Sung-hyun

South Korean cinema has built up quite the reputation for tight crime thrillers, from Oldboy and The Villainess to I Saw the Devil, Memories of Murder and The Age of Shadows, and writer-director Byun Sung-hyun provides yet another strong genre entry with The Merciless. The title could apply to cops and criminals alike in this rock-hard, violent epic, which weaves backwards and forward in complex, converging timelines, from the jumping-off point of an undercover cop's release from prison.

After a Tarantino-lite opening gambit about seafood and death that ends in the expected bullet-to-the-head, The Merciless swings into action as Hyun-soo is treated to a hero's welcome when he steps out of a Busan jail. Played by charismatic boyband member Im Si-wan (stage name Siwan), Hyun-soo has been serving time alongside debonair mob boss Jae-ho (Sul Kyoung-gu), and they've got plans for getting into some nefarious business together. But Jae-ho is unaware that Hyun-soo is a cop, working for police chief Cheon (Jeon Hye-jin) and, although the two men have backed each other up over three tough years in the slammer, their allegiances are about to be tested as D-Day, the date of arrival for a substantial drug shipment, looms.

The Merciless has a conventional gangster plot, but keeping track of the ambiguities of the central characters offers rewards for patient audiences. Bursts of action are spectacularly choreographed, alongside some unexpectedly jolly humour, but Byun keeps a steely focus on the strong relationship between Hyun-soo and Jae-ho, right up to a fierce, confrontational climax.

Comparisons with Hong Kong's Infernal Affairs and Martin Scorsese remake The Departed are inevitable. The Merciless is practically begging for a Hollywood retread of its own, as Byun delivers a taut and visceral slice of machismo; a tough, gaudy entry in the Korean crime cycle that's likely to expand the ever-growing fanbase for this kind of blood-drenched, bare-knuckle fare.

Selected release from Fri 27 Oct.

The Merciless

  • 4 stars
  • 2017
  • South Korea
  • 18
  • Directed by: Byun Sung-hyun
  • Cast: Im Si-wan, Sul Kyoung-gu, Jeon Hye-jin
  • UK release: 27 October 2017

Hyun-soo (Siwan) is an undercover cop released from prison who debonair mob boss and prison buddy Jae-ho (Kyoung-gu) doesn’t realise is still undercover. Rock-hard, violent Korean gangster epic which is practically begging for a Hollywood remake; spectacular action, unexpectedly jolly humour and a tight focus on the…