Movie Review: Cold Eyes
Since we’re still combing through some of last year’s blockbuster favorites, it’s time to take a look at crime thriller Cold Eyes (also called The Watchers), which not only became the tenth highest-grossing film of 2013 but also managed to put its leading lady Han Hyo-joo in just the right position to land a couple of best actress accolades, the biggest and most prestigious being at the 34th Blue Dragon Film Awards.
Though the film was nominated in five other categories at the same awards ceremony, it’s not too surprising that it wasn’t a clear winner across the board. If anything, it’s curious to see acting awards being given to a police chase bonanza that comes off as pretty standard summer popcorn fare, complete with characterizations that aren’t as full-fledged as you’d expect from something a little grittier and more dramatic.
However, even with your expectations set at Summer Movie Level, there’s still something missing from this remake of 2007 Hong Kong movie Eye in the Sky, though it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what lends the experience such a generic aftertaste given the wealth of interesting technology on display. That being said, if you have a paranoid fear of Big Brother, this might not be an ideal way to spend two hours of your time when you could be spending it taping over your cameras and going off the grid because you were always right and yes, they’re watching you right now.
Also included in the audience that this movie isn’t intended for are those who enjoy thrills in their thrillers, interesting and complex villains, and/or interesting and complex movies.
The premise revolves around a rookie cop joining an elite special crimes unit of the police force specializing in surveillance technology, and their manhunt for the ringleader and mastermind behind a recent series of high-profile crimes, including but not limited to bank and stock exchange robberies.
Their field team is small and close-knit, held together by a wizened father figure who works intel close to the action and the requisite mother figure who provides support from her high-tech office of nerds and technological wizardry. They have a key to the city with access to every CCTV camera as well as state-of-the-art body and motion recognition software, which surprisingly aids them little when they find out that their villain is smart enough to travel only in blind spots where the cameras can’t see.
This leaves the elite team with only themselves and their collective wits to try and track down a man whose life revolves around living in the shadows as the crimes start piling up and the death toll rises. What we get, then, is a straight chase film with fancy computers and fancy brains, but one that fails to be as keen as some of its characters purport themselves to be or as action-packed as it would’ve liked to be.
We meet the aforementioned rookie cop HA YOON-JOO (Han Hyo-joo) during a unique test she has to pass in order to make the elite team, one which requires her to use her photographic memory in new and different ways.
She’s your classic do-gooder heroine with a heart of gold and a nervous finger-tapping tic, with her only character flaw (in the eyes of her superiors) being her unwillingness to stand idly by while others are getting hurt, even if it means blowing her cover. That cover is what’s important, since she and her team are tasked with blending in with the population to surveil and track down criminals.
Like all of her teammates she’s given an animal code name, and while her preference runs toward the noble-sounding “Reindeer”, her superior takes her down a peg by dubbing her “Piglet”. The only bit of levity in the film is when she gets hazed by her colleagues by failing to remember her comm is on as she goes to the bathroom, giving everyone in the field and in the office an earful of her peeing.
The team’s superior is CHIEF HWANG (Sol Kyung-gu), again another classic authoritative archetype found in police-related films who, like Yoon-joo, doesn’t deviate from the mold. Every character is given a quirk or two to try and set them apart from being everyone else ever, and Chief Hwang’s lies in his affinity for carving out chess pieces to represent the animal code names of his people in the field, and sometimes the code names for the people they’re after.
These he puts on alternating (but curiously analogue compared to the advanced setup in the main office) small-scale maps of the different regions in Seoul so that he always has a bird’s-eye view of where his agents are at all times. Though he rarely participates in field work, he’s always on or near where he needs to be in a constantly-moving van set up for his purposes, and helps wrangle his agents/children so that things run as smoothly as possible.
Though well-played, he’s a character you’ve seen before and one you’ll see again, for as long as there are old dogs running the show with young’uns to care for. He develops a close bond of friendship and respect with Yoon-joo, but again, it’s really hard to stress how ordinary and expected each of these relationships are without stressing just how ordinary and expected each of these relationships are. (If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)
Their main foe lies in JAMES (Jung Woo-sung), a professional and extremely intelligent criminal who specializes in circumventing surveillance systems and seamlessly pulling off high-risk crimes with his own specialized team. He doesn’t directly involve himself in the action, preferring to plan everything out with mathematical precision so he can watch the events unfold from various rooftop perches.
We don’t know who he is or where he came from, only that he’s riddled with what look like lash marks and that he loves timers and punctuality. He’s equally ruthless when it comes to killing, showing zero human emotion or sympathy for those he kills. One of the only inventive sequences in the film comes when he punishes one of his men for deviating from the bank robbery plan by binding his face and hands with clear tape so that he slowly suffocates to death as an example to the others.
Though James does let him live, it’s not because he suddenly feels bad for the guy, since we witness just how heartless he is when he kills an innocent man he finds accidentally peeping at him through a telescope by stabbing him with a pen, in what becomes his signature method for murder throughout the film.
There are some interesting pseudo-ideas hinted at that could’ve been used to give James more depth, since his character is one of the weakest aspects of the story. For instance, he’s given the jobs he has to do through a shady crime broker (Kim Byung-ok), with whom he has a tense and distrustful relationship.
With the world that they’re in requiring utmost secrecy and their own personal expendability, both the broker and James see each other as loose ends that have to be dealt with in the only way loose ends can be dealt with: murder. I won’t spoil it by saying who’s successful in that endeavor, but the bigger question is, does it matter? And the answer is no. It really doesn’t.
In the context of the other cookie-cutter-yet-perfectly-serviceable characters, James is more of the same, only he occupies the opposite end of the Good vs. Evil spectrum—which, like most things in this story, is very black and white with nary a hint of a moral gray area to be found. Being a huge fan of Jung Woo-sung as an actor left me with a quandary regarding this performance, because in all seriousness, literally anyone could’ve played his role. We would’ve missed out on the hotness factor, sure, but could a crash test dummy have done all that the role of James required? With a little creativity, yes.
That’s not to put down the effort needed to successfully execute his few action scenes, but it’s such a waste of good talent to put an A-list star in what really amounts to a one-dimensional role. Villains are supposed to be fun, or at least fun to hate, or at the very least so horrifying that we leave the movie looking over our shoulders. Usually when actors who’ve always played goodie-goodie roles switch to a villainous one, it’s because they want to stretch their muscles and play with something a little different. James is definitely a different kind of role for this actor, but he’s given so little to do and so little to play with beyond planning, running, and stabbing that the exercise inevitably falls flat.
So despite some lackluster characterization on the part of the writer, James still does his job as a source of conflict and the object for Yoon-joo and her colleagues to chase. He’s a nameless kingpin who’s shaped his life around being no one and everyone, so to find him, Chief Hwang and his team employ every trick in the technologically-advanced police handbook—and it all starts with one of James’ partners in crime, who was careless enough to get spotted by a random CCTV camera.
They start their hunt with him, and if there’s some positivity to glean from what seems like a very routine endeavor, it’s in getting to watch the whole unit work together like a well-oiled machine, thanks to Chief Hwang’s leadership and the teamwork of his zoo animals. One in particular whom we get to know, SQUIRREL (2PM’s Lee Junho), is an especially fun addition to the team—and though his scenes with Yoon-joo aren’t plentiful, the rapport and bond of trust they develop (since he’s technically her sunbae in work while being her dongsaeng in age) is one of the film’s few bright spots.
In the process of tracking down James’ partner and sorting through clues, the Zoo Unit figures out that James’ next target is the stock exchange, and set up a stakeout to catch the criminals. For all their tech-savvy tricks, they still use a basic radio system to communicate, which James is easily able to pick up on since he’s always listening to the police’s radio waves.
Naturally, he calls off the operation, and narrowly escapes being caught by Yoon-joo and Chief Hwang. His men aren’t so lucky, and the Zoo Unit doesn’t come away unscathed either. Their trail on James goes cold until Yoon-joo uses her superior photographic memory to remember a detail she’d missed before—a train ride where she’d unmistakably seen James’ face, and a piece of paper telling her where he might be found.
She provides the essential break in the case, but that means she has to put herself in harm’s way to track down a known killer. It’s only toward the very end of the film that she and James get any face time, with one taut confrontation leading to another much more violent one as James finds himself cornered by the police.
What ensues is exactly what you would expect—a manhunt with a little bit of emotion sprinkled in on Yoon-joo’s side of things, especially when she becomes so frustrated with constantly losing James’ trail that she throws a justified crying fit. For their part, the dots are all connected adequately, which is definitely a word that can be used to describe the whole experience of watching an action film with no standout action set pieces. I guess it’s kind of tough when your main baddie removes himself so far from the action that he’s perched up on a rooftop two buildings over, but he gets his hands dirty often enough for us to deem him irredeemable and deserving of whatever fate’s got in store for him.
It’s a shame then that adequacy is all you get when you consider the talent involved and the relationships that could’ve been further explored, but we saw so little of these characters outside their job parameters to really connect with them as people. It’s fine if a little bit lamentable that we never got to know anything about James, but Yoon-joo should’ve really been carrying the story’s emotional weight on her shoulders.
But what did we ever learn about her that wasn’t job-related? What did she learn, aside from exploring the photographs in her memory more thoroughly? What made her want to become a police officer, and how did she deal with and overcome her nervous tic that was never brought up again? Was she always a nervous person, or just high-strung because of her superior intelligence? Some of these questions would’ve been nice to have answers to, if they had really wanted to let us in to the way Yoon-joo thinks—and more importantly, why.
Bottom Line: Much like their symbolic chess pieces, the wooden characters in Cold Eyes bring nothing to the table that hasn’t already sat there many times before. Though it attempts to reinvent the procedural crime thriller by bringing police work into the modern age, it forgets to be more than a long commercial advocating law enforcement. Completely watchable, ultimately forgettable. 5/10.