We’ve reviewed a ton of Asian action films over the years, a majority of them hailing from China and South Korea. This includes a lot of period pieces featuring martial arts and/or swordplay.
We’ve also noticed many share a similar formula…some kind of fighter - soldier, assassin, mercenary, etc - who’s so skilled and lethal that he’s capable of defeating dozens of opponents (though, in the time-honored tradition of martial arts movies, they generally attack one-at-a-time). But while the action and fight choreography may be impressive, the character’s invincibility tends to dampen much of the suspense.
So it’s always cool when one comes along that adds a new wrinkle to keep us on our toes. Despite its generic title, Night of the Assassin serves up an antihero, Lee Nan (Hyeon-jun Shin), whose survival ‘till the end credits isn’t necessarily a given. Not that he isn’t a deadlier swordsman than anyone else he clashes with, but he’s suffering from heart failure and will likely die if he continues fighting.
That presents a problem because Inan is a legendary professional assassin with a huge bounty on his head, so keeping a low profile might be a challenge. He ends up in a village controlled by corrupt magistrate Ibang (Lee Moon-sik), who has an uneasy alliance with opium-dealing bandits. Inan befriends a widow, Seon-hong (Kim-Minkyung), and her young son, Chil-bok, who don’t know his true identity. This relationship is pretty amusing, often charming, since he goes to work as a waiter in their restaurant, never saying much but endearing himself to the boy.
When bandits (who just escaped prison) threaten the family, Inan swiftly kills them, revealing who he really is. Once Ibang learns of this, he kidnaps Chil-bok, who he promises to release if Inan assassinates the bandit leader. Meanwhile, a group of bounty hunters are also alerted to Inan’s whereabouts. So pretty much everybody except Seon-hong is trying to kill Inan. Bad idea, of course.
|Inan regrets not leaving a trail of bread crumbs.
Despite a lot of light comedy during the first half of the film, things turn serious - and violent - as Inan goes to work. He’s sullen and quiet, but obviously cares very much about the family he’s trying to save, and is perhaps even seeking a little redemption along the way. Of course, Inan is so lethal with a sword that we’re certain he’s gonna slaughter anyone who challenges him. However, we’re also aware he could drop dead at any moment. That aspect of the plot creates a lot of tension during the fight sequences (of which there are plenty).
Speaking of which, the action is exciting, extremely well-choreographed and (somewhat refreshingly these days) looks like it was accomplished with a minimum of special effects trickery. Not only that, some scenes actually do break with tradition, with Inan fighting several people at the same time.
Though the denouement lingers for a few scenes too many, everything comes to a satisfying - albeit bittersweet - conclusion. Night of the Assassin deftly combines comedy, family drama and revenge-fueled action into an entertaining, fast-paced package. And despite being ruthless and cold-blooded at the beginning, Inan is ultimately a likable character we’re greatly invested in…one whose health has us worried the entire time.