[Movie Review] Netflix’s Carter offers great camera work and fight choreography but not much else
Netflix’s action film Carter boasts a one-scene, one-cut format, and a whole heck of a lot of highly choreographed fight scenes. As I love a good action flick — and a tenacious hero that packs a punch, and a kick, and possibly a couple of deadly weapons too — I tuned in.
Carter, as it turns out, is pretty much a what-you-see-is-what-you-get sort of movie. Did you come to see Joo-won kick arse as the eponymous hero? You will get that. Did you come to see the slick choreography and almost too crazy to be real fight scenes? You will get that too (and really, they are too crazy to be real, because a good chunk of them are heavy-laden with CGI).
But did you come for an expertly woven tale of geopolitical tensions, rogue operators, tested loyalties, and a high-stakes pandemic setting? Well, you won’t really get that. I mean, they tried, but there’s not a whole lot there, and that’s likely because each scene is about the fight it engenders, not about the actual plot it contains.
But there is an actual plot for Carter, and it’s this: a man (of the highly-trained operator variety) wakes up in a creepy bedroom with no memory of who he is, how he got there, or anything else up until that moment. All he has to go on is a woman’s voice in his head giving him incessant instruction.
That voice is technically in his brain somehow, because the other thing he wakes up with is a cross-shaped scar on the back of his shaved head, freshly stapled shut. (It smacks of Hitman to me, but also, if you thought they were going to do something with the cross-shaped motif, you’d be wrong. Ain’t no time for metaphors when you’re running for your life in a g-string).
Much like being in a first-person shooter video game, we — and the camera — follow Carter closely, panning around him in all sorts of cool ways, and following him in a way that really make you feel like you’re the one escaping naked killers in an opium haze, or riding a motorcycle at top speed while leaping into van while simultaneously fighting off evil secret agents. Or any other kind of vehicle. Trains, planes, whatever — if there is something moving at high velocity that would make these action sequences more insanely gravity-defying and staggering, it happens in this movie.
While I might poke fun at the lack of story, there actually is one lurking under all the action, it just takes such a second seat to it that it feels tangential. Also, the story could be anything, and it almost doesn’t matter, because the common denominator is Carter trusting no one, bludgeoning everyone, and trying to complete his mission — or die trying.
I think the opening scene where Carter first wakes up is one of the strongest in the movie, mostly because it’s very pointed in what it sets up for us. A pan across the creepy porn room shows us that some rogue surgeries have taken place, and the TV tells us the entire setup (it’s really all you need to know).
In a dystopic near-future, it’s been ten months since the “DMZ virus” broke out (yes, it’s another virus story). Now, an important figure DOCTOR JUNG (Jung Jae-young) and his younger daughter HANA (Kim Bo-min) are missing. They were on their way to North Korea when they were seemingly taken hostage or apprehended.
They’re important because Dr. Jung somehow saved his daughter from the DMZ virus — hence she holds the secret to the cure and there’s a huge antibody operation going on in an appropriately creepy lab that we’ll visit during the plot climax. But right now, it’s just sky-high political tensions between North and South Korea and the CIA, which is for some reason also deeply involved.
Speaking of the CIA, Carter wakes up post-op and is immediately assaulted by CIA agents looking for Dr. Jung — but I don’t know what’s scarier, the way they immediately try to shoot Carter dead, or their god-awful acting skills (Camilla Belle, Mike Colter, come on guys!).
Regardless, the voice in Carter’s head tells him to get outta there and then guides him out of his current hellacious circumstances into yet more hellacious circumstances.
A dive through the window puts him in a super creepy opium sauna situation, where he winds up fighting off a million naked individuals — it’s like a legitimate Hieronymus Bosch nightmare, and nothing like the all-for-the-fun shower fight in The K2. It’s this scene that shows us how violent Carter is willing to get (too violent), and how fast the pace is going to be (too fast).
After Carter clothes himself things get a little more civil, but the man doesn’t have a moment to rest. All the while he’s following the woman’s voice in his head — acting purely on faith, because there’s really not much else to go on. Every agent he meets tries to convince him they’re on his side, and from the audience’s perspective it’s a jumble. Are we supposed to trust the guiding voice along with Carter, or is he heading for destruction and about to ruin whatever the true/good plan is here?
It turns out his mission is to save Hana, a very cute little girl in overalls who is clearly having a day. It was one thing to watch Carter run and fight for his life, but once he secures Hana, each scene is complicated by also having to keep Hana safe.
Even though there’s nothing believable about any of these intense and long-winded action scenes, they’re kinda fun if you embrace the impossibilities and just enjoy the sheer tour de force that is Carter/Joo-won.
For a movie of back-to-back action sequences, Carter feels like it’s way longer than it needs to be, but in a way, we are stuck on the mission with him as well. The strongest bits of the movie are just that — that we are experiencing everything quite viscerally with him — and if that’s enough for you, then you’ll be fine. But if you’re looking for something with a little more craft behind it — like a script longer than twenty pages, or a satisfying twist that gives you something to make you feel like your two hours weren’t entirely wasted, you’ll probably leave dissatisfied.
However, for me, it wasn’t a total waste: the real revelation here is Joo-won, who I didn’t really know had such a beast mode. He brings a great screen presence and energy to each scene, and just watching the fight choreography is impressive (not to mention exhausting).
I do love a larger-than-life hero, so if there was anything for me to gobble up here, it was that. Joo-won makes the most of what’s available to him in this rather undeveloped character, carrying the weight of an action hero quite well. The only problem, I guess, is that it could have been so much better if there were something more for him to actually carry.