Tuesday, June 24, 2014

With SNOWPIERCER, Bong Joon-ho teaches Hollywood how to make a smart blockbuster

There are probably half a dozen ways to approach SNOWPIERCER, the first English-language feature from noted South Korean director Bong Joon-ho, shown below. You could certainly call it an action movie, which it is. The action is terrific and practically non-stop, save for one surprising expository speech from star Chris Evans (on poster, above, and two photos down) that is so out of nowhere and rather charming and tender that it stops the movie in its tracks for a couple of sweet minutes.

Or simply call the film a blockbuster, since it offers two full hours (plus credits) of enjoyment, a starry cast, explosions, near-non-stop thrills, and lots of gun play and violence -- all wrapped within an intelligent plot that gives us a hell of a lot more than mere special effects. Attention, Hollywood: This is how your blockbusters ought to be delivered -- with the usual hotshot trimmings surrounding some genuine content for a change.

But wait: Snowpiercer is also a sci-fi movie, taking off from the point at which our world has finally come to terms with global warming by shooting into the atmosphere some new derivative that overdoes things hugely, turning the world to ice. All surviving citizens have been herded aboard an enormously long train that has been designed to keep the inside temperature within a livable range.

Ah, yes, but this movie is also a nifty political parable about class in our society. The train, you see, is a microcosm of the world in which we already live. How this "new" world is organized turns out to be one of the delightful treats that Mr. Bong, as director and co-writer, has up his sleeve -- a sleeve, by the way, that is continually surprising and politically astute. This filmmaker has already gifted us with three very different, though equally successful, films: the police procedural, Memories of Murder; an unusual monster movie, The Host; and the character-study-cum-criminal-justice tale, Mother.

Snowpiercer is like nothing else Bong has done, and I think it's his best film yet, certainly his most accessible to western audiences. Oh, yes: And did I mention that this is also one of those newly popular contained-space thrillers, in which everything we see and experience, save a couple of minutes, takes place inside this speeding train. Bong has found a way to keep things moving so fast and so intensely that the pace never lags. One surprise after another awaits us as our set of beleaguered heroes -- think of them as the 99 per cent -- makes its way from train car to train car in its quest to reach, and wrest power from, the one per cent.

These train cars and what they hold are too much fun to spoil with any give-aways here (my personal favorite is the schoolroom, with a well-used Allison Pill, above, as the teacher). Instead let's talk about the crack international cast that Mr. Bong has assembled and that brings his movie to amazing life. Mr. Evans, always good, is light years away from his Captain America image (think of this performance as a cross between his super-hero work and his role in The Iceman).

Evans is well abetted by a fine and action-prone Jamie Bell, above, as his second-in-command. His "mentor" is played by the wonderful John Hurt (below, left with Luke Pasqualino), who brings his usual charm and precision to the proceedings, as well as a little more melancholy and hesitation that we're used to from this excellent actor.

A word must be said for Ed Harris, who does his typically commanding job, as well as for Octavia Spencer (below) who brings her enormous humanity and luminosity to the film, as a fighting mother.

The scene-stealer of them all, however, is Miss Tilda Swinton (below, center), who walks away with the acting/performing/knocking-your-socks-off award. She is unlike anything we've so far seen in her evidently vast repertoire, and she staggers us, while entertaining us royally, as always.

Mr. Bong is from South Korean, so it only seems fair that he include a couple of good Asian actors into his mix. He does, and Song Kang-ho (below, of Secret Sunshine and Thirst) comes through with flying colors. He is -- as character, actor, and action hero -- every bit the equal of Mr. Evans.

As the young woman who accompanies him, Ko Ah-sung proves delightful and daring in her own way. Ms Ko, below, right, gets a particularly suuculent moment in the film, as she and another species eye each other interestedly, warily.

Another of my critical compatriots noted, after the press screening, that he was concerned that director Bong might have made too many concessions to Hollywood's need for feel-good. But no: both of us agreed that the filmmaker has given us his usual dark vision, in which some of the very characters we care for most do not make it to the film's finale.

That finale is something, all right: different from anything else we've seen in this movie, both hopeful and frightening. Snowpiercer is one hell of a ride. Anyone interested in learning what a smart blockbuster looks, sounds and feels like should not miss it.

The movie, from Radius-TWC, opens this Friday, June 27, here in New York at the film centers Angelika and Elinor Bunin Munroe, as well as making its NYC debut as part of BAMcinemaFest 2014 the The BAM Cinemateque in Brooklyn tomorrow, Wednesday, June 25. (This BAM screening will feature a Q&A with director Bong Joon Ho and actor John Hurt, moderated by Scott Foundas, chief film critic for Variety.) Where is the film playing elsewhere across the country? Well, try clicking here, and then entering your info under TICKETS AND SHOWTIMES and see what happens....

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