IRIS: Episode 1
Pretty badass, yo.
IRIS is an expensive drama, and it totally shows. I can’t say that the drama took my breath away, but it was very entertaining, and I can see why it burst on the scene with such a strong start. And then improved on it the following day.
I’m not surprised to see a lot of action, but I was a little surprised (in a nice way) to find that the first episode was actually pretty funny. I suspect that may fade as the story heads into more of its spy storylines, but it was a pleasant way to kick off the series — action mixed with beautiful cinematography, well-placed music, and oh yeah, Lee! Byung! Heon!
SONG OF THE DAY
LeeSsang – “Run”
EPISODE 1 RECAP
We start out in Hungary. Present day.
KIM HYUN-JOON (Lee Byung-heon) is a National Security (NSS) agent — the top agent, in fact, although we don’t know that yet — and is surprised to be approached by his boss, the bureau chief Baek San. The man comes bearing bad news — they’ve suffered losses and agents have died.
Baek San relates the 1989 event when Hungary opened its border to the west, allowing Germans to leave en masse, thus aiding in the reunification of East and West Germany. He uses that as a segue to their current situation as he issues Hyun-joon a solo mission. If he succeeds, his actions could have a large influence in bringing about Korea’s own unification.
Hyun-joon prepares to carry out his mission: an assassination. The target is a high-ranking North Korean politician, and Hyun-joon’s shocked expression lets us know that he feels the gravity of this assignment.
In a very Bourne Identity-like sequence (and I mean the comparison positively, since the cinematography and music are top-notch), Hyun-joon prepares to carry out his task.
He scopes out the location of the hit, which is the Budapest History Museum. Posing as a tourist, he snaps photos of the premises, and cases the building, keeping a particular eye on the North Korean politician’s security detail. The guard team is led by Park Chul-young (Kim Seung-woo), who is closely attended by his subordinate, Kim Sun-hwa (Kim So-yeon).
As they await the arrival of the politician, Chul-young organizes his security team to receive him. Something is off when one of his guards stationed inside doesn’t respond to a roll call — and while he doesn’t know that Hyun-joon has silently taken out several guards, he knows something is wrong. He entrusts the team outside to Sun-hwa and runs inside to check.
When the politician’s entourage arrives, he is surrounded by bodyguards, while Sun-hwa remains on alert for danger. Still undetected, Hyun-joon takes out a position on the balcony and readies his gun to get a clear shot of his target. He waits as guards swarm the man, ready to pull the trigger…
Too late, Sun-hwa becomes aware of the danger and leaps in front of the man to shove him aside. Her instincts were just a split-second too late and the man is shot. Mission complete, Hyun-joon makes his getaway, not bothering to clear his weapons or take them with him.
Chul-young races to find the sniper, and spots Hyun-joon leaving from a distance. He manages to get off a shot, which hits Hyun-joon in the side.
Hyun-joon stumbles but keeps going, quickly blending into the crowd while the North Korean agents pursue. He slips onto the subway and loses them.
He’s badly injured, but his priority is to make it back to his apartment, where he calls Baek San to inform him that the mission was a success. He asks for a rescue, because he’s unable to make the escape on his own — but the cool-headed chief tells him he’s on his own.
Hyun-joon repeats his request, this time more fervently: “There is a reason I must stay alive and return. Please help me.”
But his boss just hangs up on him.
Alone now, Hyun-joon has to figure out his own way to survive and return home. He makes his way to an empty railroad depot, but Chul-young has launched a full-scale watch for him, and manages to trace his whereabouts.
Based on their intelligence, North Koreans head to the old railroad warehouse, where Hyun-joon crudely tends to his gunshot wound. The agents storm in and disperse in search of their quarry, and Hyun-joon is able to take out of few of them individually. Despite his injury, he is still strong and fast, and uses his benefit of surprise.
Young-chul spots him and follows while firing his gun at Hyun-joon, who ducks out of the way. He launches himself at Young-chul for a brief hand-to-hand struggle, and then they draw their weapons simultaneously at each other. Sun-hwa, poised to snipe from a distance, can’t get a clean shot and waits.
Hyun-joon knocks his enemy’s gun aside, and engages in more hand-to-hand fighting that ends with him being pushed off the landing to the lower level.
He takes that opportunity and runs outside — just as a helicopter swoops down and hovers over the scene. The pilot sees Hyun-joon running away and shoots a missile, which misses him but connects with a train car.
The blast shoots him into the air, into a car, and onto the ground. Bleeding from the bullet wound and stunned from the blow, Hyun-joon tries to crawl onward, but collapses into unconsciousness.
And then, we skip backward, to his school days.
Now we’re with a younger Hyun-joon, who makes his way to class at the beginning of his term. It’s an American politics and diplomacy lecture, and he walks in late as the professor lectures about Kennedy’s assassination. He asks his class about the various hypotheses about Kennedy’s murder. The student who responds is nameless throughout this episode, but we’ll know her as CHOI SEUNG-HEE (Kim Tae-hee).
Seung-hee lists a few of the conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s assassination (for instance, that it was really the work of the CIA, or the military-industrial complex). She believes the latter most plausible, relating it to Kennedy’s stance on withdrawal from Vietnam.
When the professor asks Hyun-joon what he thinks, he gives an off-the-cuff remark that dismisses Seung-hee’s comment. A little miffed, she launches into a more detailed explanation regarding the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, and calls Hyun-joon’s comment “simplistic and ignorant.”
He’s a little turned on at her intelligence, and a little insulted. But when he tries to talk to her during lunch, she simply walks away and ignores him.
In addition to school, Hyun-joon is also busy with army training alongside his best friend, JIN SA-WOO (Jung Jun-ho). The two have a good friendship and share a dorm room, and are also the top two of their group, as we see in various drills. Their shooting test gives me a bit of an Iceman–Maverick vibe, because Sa-woo completes the test coolly and proficiently, while Hyun-joon is a show-off; he’s just as good, but in a more unconventional way.
They have a healthy sense of competition and spur each other on. They also josh each other, as Sa-woo does when Hyun-joon moons over the new girl he’s just met, whom he is already describing in superlative terms. He doesn’t know her well enough to mean it 100% seriously, but he’s definitely intrigued. Therefore, Hyun-joon actually studies for class, determined to prove he’s not as dumb as Seung-hee seems to think him.
This time, he volunteers to answer a question (about the meaning behind the Gulf War) and satisfies the professor with an accurate summary. Instead of letting the professor continue, Hyun-joon keeps speaking, rattling off a litany of facts about the war.
Seung-hee is amused, but she shoots him down again, saying that explaining the meaning of war through memorized figures is “exceedingly simplistic and ignorant.”
Afterward, Hyun-joon can’t take the indignity and he talks to her after class, saying that he’s not simple and ignorant. He asks her out for some tea so he can defend himself. She declines, but he perks up when she adds, “Now, drinks, maybe…”
As they drink boilermakers (soju bombs), Hyun-joon explains that he didn’t actually force himself to memorize those details — his memory is really good, and once he reads something, he has it stored in his brain. He demonstrates by reciting the restaurant’s various menus, and she’s duly impressed.
She also drinks him under the table. She decrees his boilermaker “weak” and makes much stronger drinks, and in an effort to impress her, he drinks them all. Some time later, he wakes up at the table to find that she’s already paid and left.
The problem is, that’s the last he sees of her, because she stops showing up to class. Hyun-joon asks the professor if he knows why she’s not coming anymore, and learns that she was admitted to the class by special request of the dean; the professor doesn’t even know her name.
Over the next few days, Hyun-joon sulks over “the one that got away” — he doesn’t even know the girl’s name, or where she lives. Sa-woo tries to cheer him up, but Hyun-joon remains in a funk.
When Sa-woo meets his sunbae for drinks, however, he catches one glimpse of Seung-hee and falls head over heels in love with her. Naturally he has no clue that this is the same girl that Hyun-joon has been mooning over. The sunbae is PARK SANG-HYUN, who grew up in the same hometown as Sa-woo and is now a businessman. Seung-hee is introduced as one of his fellow employees, Jin-ah (and while we know that’s a fake name if we’re keeping up with character profiles, for the moment there’s no reason to think she’s assuming a persona).
Sa-woo comes home exulting over his future wife, and is in such good spirits that he urges Hyun-joon to drink his worries aside. The two sneak out to a nightclub, where Sa-woo gets busy acting as wingman for his friend by chatting up some girls.
Unfortunately, Hyun-joon gets into a minor clash with a drunk guy in the bathroom, who rallies his friends to go after him. The two friends run out of the bar while a whole gang of thugs chases after them, but they get separated — while Hyun-joon is able to run ahead, Sa-woo finds himself cornered.
In the morning, Sa-woo is nursing a black eye and is punished for his rule-breaking by running extra laps dragging a tire.
(Of course, then Hyun-joon tries to make things right by taking responsibility for the fight, thinking that’ll get Sa-woo off the hook. Instead, not only does their officer punish Hyun-joon, he makes the punishment even worse. LOL.)
One night, Sa-woo is roused from sleep by his superior officer, who is accompanied by some strange men. Hyun-joon is also awakened and taken in a strange car with the strange men to a strange location. He remains tense and asks where he’s going, but gets no response.
As Hyun-joon is led down the hall, however, he hears groans of pain coming from one chamber — and he recognizes Sa-woo’s voice. Suddenly in a panic, he struggles, but is dragged into his own chamber, where he is strapped to medical apparatus and administered an injection. The drugs make both men writhe in pain, and their heartrates speed to dangerous levels. The injection is pentothal (sodium thipental), a barbiturate used in interrogations to break the subject’s resistance.
All the while, Seung-hee watches impassively from the other side of the one-way mirror. Next to her is Sang-hyun, Sa-woo’s sunbae, who is NOT a businessman after all but the leader of this assignment. While the men’s vital signs are monitored, Sang-hyun asks a single question: “What is your mission?”
Seung-hee sees that Hyun-joon’s physical responses are normal, which means that Hyun-joon has managed to control his emotions perfectly. They increase the dosage of pentothal, which forces his heartrate even higher. Again, Sang-hyun demands to know what his mission is.
But then, Hyun-joon surprises them — fueled by fury, he strains against his bindings with all his strength, and actually breaks free of the wrist strap. Still weak, he stumbles to the ground, then grabs a chair and attacks the one-way glass. It’s reinforced so it doesn’t break, and he cannot see inside the room, but the agents are alarmed.
Hyun-joon continues to pound away at the glass. Sang-hyun tells his men to close off the room and prepare a sedative.
A voice interrupts, stopping them: Bureau chief Baek San walks in and instructs them to not do anything.
First things first: shirtless Lee Byung-heon!
All right, now that that’s out of the way…
I thought IRIS got off to a great start. A great mix of action, humor, and enough intrigue to capture your interest without being cryptic (ahem, Swallow the Sun). I think most people already know the general premise of the story, which means that the torture/interrogation scene at the end isn’t really so shocking because we can all surmise that this is some kind of test. Therefore, it’s up to the execution to hold our interest, and that is something this drama certainly accomplishes at a high quality level. The production is very stylish, beautifully shot, and sleek without being too slick. If that makes sense.
I knew IRIS would look good, but the big question was whether it would connect with me. And I think one of the big draws for me was that it hits the right tone. I’ve seen big-budget blockbusters that felt devoid of spirit, and I was wondering if IRIS would be another one of those. I was pleasantly surprised at not only the suspenseful opening, but also the warm, funny flashback portion. I did think the flashback dragged on a bit too long, but I liked getting a chance to see Hyun-joon as a cocky young guy. The camaraderie between him and Sa-woo is another enjoyable bit, because they really do seem like close friends. That means the impending love triangle may actually hurt, which I consider a good thing in a dramatic sense.
Much of the drama’s appeal I will attribute to Lee Byung-heon — that man is compelling! — but even a great actor like him cannot act in a vacuum, and here’s where the high production values do make a big difference.
Kim Tae-hee wasn’t even that bad. I was not expecting much from her but hoping she would make all the naysayers eat their words (myself included). I don’t think she was strong enough to revoke her image as the Pretty Face Who Can’t Act, but at least she didn’t reinforce it.
I think the problem with Kim Tae-hee isn’t that she is a horrible actress, but that she lacks a certain charisma, oddly enough. (I say it’s odd because usually CF queens abound with charisma, since they’re trading on their appealing images more than skills.) But she does, especially compared to her co-stars. Lee Byung-heon is badass, Jung Jun-ho is warm, Kim Seung-woo is coldly professional, Kim So-yeon is sexy and strong, and TOP is… well, he’s TOP. Next to them, Kim Tae-hee sorta fades.
Stylish, entertaining, well-acted, well-produced. Probably going to be a huge success. I won’t gush wildly and call it an instant winner, but it’s off to a promising beginning. Definitely worth at least checking out.