HARD HIT Traps You And Won’t Let Go

Buoyed by some dynamite performances, this clever style exercise from Korea accelerates the tension perfectly—for the most part

As I discussed fairly recently in my review for the underwhelming two-hander Confession, there is a beautiful exercise to be had in making genre films with a set premise that acts as something of a constraint. This sort of exercise can create unique challenges that set a gate around what the viewer can expect, and in turn becomes something of a game with the audience. Another action-thriller that plays with a playful limitation is the Korean film Hard Hit, now released in the U.S. thanks to Capelight. And this time, the constraint works much more effectively.

The central conceit is simple enough: Sung-Gyu (Woo-Jin Jo) is a bank manager who is clearly feeling distant from his children. He attempts to draw some sort of connection by taking them to school one morning in place of their mother. He soon discovers that someone else has dangerous plans: A bomb has been planted in his car, and if he or his children exit the car, the bomb will explode unless he pays the mysterious bomber extravagant ransom money.

Immediately, visions of the Keanu Reeves classic Speed probably spring to mind, but the strongest comparison to make to the film is Joel Schumacher’s under-appreciated Phone Booth. Both involve men who find themselves in a trapped space under the whims of an unseen and unknown tormentor, having to navigate how to keep themselves and others safe with the least amount of friction. Jo’s performance leans into this tension, as he is initially skeptical, but through demonstrations it becomes clear that his bomber and captor is dead set on getting his money, and isn’t afraid to hurt people if that’s what it takes.

Of course, there are eventual complications. Sung-Gyu’s son is injured severely at one point, so there is a ticking clock of attempting to appease the bomber quickly enough that his son can get to the hospital. It soon becomes apparent that there are multiple bombs scattered throughout the city, and to make matters more complicated, once the bombs start going off, the police investigate and determine that because Sung-Gyu is seemingly the common thread to all the explosions, he is the most likely culprit.

These developments all fall into place with natural precision, as does the growing terror and dread that Jo communicates through Sung-Gyu, as well as Lee Jae-In as his daughter Hye-In. If Sung-Gyu is attempting to remain calm, barely holding it together, Hye-In is making no attempt to remain centered given the circumstances. The weight of the film mostly rests on their shoulders, as the majority of the action occurs within the car with them, and both communicate a sense of genuine panic and desperation through their reactions to the events and to each other.

The most dynamic character, however, shows up approximately halfway through the film, with Jin Kyung’s performance as the stoic and straightforward lead of the police explosive disposal team. The character is never named, nor does she take up a wealth of screen time. But every moment she does appear, she dominates and captures the entire scene. You wish there was more of her, and certainly more centrally for her to do, but her sense of commanding presence and calm is a startling elixir to the unmitigated panic that underlines most of the film.

The trick of the film—to keep the action contained to one vehicle, and have events play out mostly in a loose real-time way—allows the acceleration of both tension and action to happen naturally over time. By the time Jin does enter into the circumstances, we know how serious our unseen villain is and to what extent they will go to get their money and how unmovable they seem in their motivations.

Thus it is a little disappointing that the final act of the film, from the reveal of who the bomber is to the eventual unraveling of their true motivations, falls a bit flat. Not because it is unsatisfying per se, but you wish the film had time to breathe in its revelations, or have the chance to preemptively prepare you for the final twists. There is a cultural criticism at play in these moments, and it doesn’t betray the tone of the earlier parts by any means, but it does seem to push itself into the narrative somewhat inelegantly. It isn’t unwelcome for tense thrillers like this to have a larger social commentary in their DNA; it just would be nice for that element to be more explicit earlier in the film.

Still, the highs for Hard Hit far outweigh any perceived issues of mismanaged messaging. At its best, the film serves as a pressure cooker that knows exactly when to turn up the heat, working within its budget to provide a memorable ride. And for all the films one could compare it to (as I certainly have), the actual execution is fairly unique, focusing on a specific character study of a family attempting to hold things together in a sudden crisis. If it could pull off its final bow with slightly higher attention in the earlier portions, it may have been elevated as something truly special. As is, it’s a well executed style exercise with a few stand-out performances, especially from Jo and Jin, that delivers upon what its opening promises to the audience.

Hard Hit is now available in Blu-Ray, DVD and Digital Releases.

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