There’s a lot of bark but not much bite in Kim Jee-Woon’s Wolf Brigade remake.
“We’re not humans in wolves clothing, we’re wolves in humans clothing.”
Of all of the products in Mamoru Oshiis Kerberos Saga, there’s really only one that’s managed to hit major worldwide success: the third film in the series, and first to be animated, Jin-Roh: The Wolf Brigade. The story of a government so unpopular with its citizens that it needs to form a miniature militia just to keep themselves safe is a story that can be translated time and time again. Illang: The Wolf Brigade is just that – changing its geographical and historical context to (hopefully) give new social insight. And with one of Korea’s most adaptable directors behind the camera, Illang was sure to be a success, right?
Set in 2029, after five years of territorial disputes between South Korea and China caused Japan to remilitarise, the two Koreas have opted to unify for security. Tariffs are implemented on them by their rival nations, causing a huge economic depression. This mishandling of the unification is met with hostility from many of its citizens with riots and demonstrations a common sight. The most violent of these protestors call themselves The Sect, and their threat to national security forces the creation of the Special Unit. Im (Gang Dong-won) is a member of that Special Unit and forced to face his own doubts and demons after a young member of the Sect kills herself with a bomb during one of the unit’s raids. He meets Yoon-hee (Han Hyo-joo), who claims to be the girl’s older sister, and two form a bond. Meanwhile, Public Security led by Sang-woo (Kim Mu-yeol) schemes to discredit the Special Unit.
In terms of plot, most of Illang: The Wolf Brigade has been taken straight from its animated predecessor Jin-Roh, with some shots looking damn close to the original in what is at times quite an impressive visual retelling. The biggest change (well, second biggest but we’ll get to that later) to the story has been in moving the action to future Korea. Kim’s version addresses more contemporary issues, notably the always-fraught topic of reunification, but doesn’t change anything in the story at all to reflect this. If none of the characters or events are specific to Korea today, then it makes the change more than just pointless; it feels like a lot of wasted potential.
Often the switch from animation can leave parts of a story lacking. The restrictions of live-action cinema are hard to really work around. We have frail human bodies and attempting to exaggerate what we’re physically capable of with CGI can often look really stupid. For Illang, this frailty works in its favour. The original movie never had a lot of big stunts and was extremely grounded in its animation. Director Kim Jee-woon is able to make a lot of the more violent set pieces feel much heavier, simply by virtue of having real people get caught in explosions or participate in the gunfights.
That said there isn’t much else that Illang brings to the already very busy Kerberos franchise. Despite its real-life actors, the movie seems to have beaten its anime counterpart in showing just how stoic and unmoving the characters’ faces can get. We end up with a movie filled with bland expressions as if the cast is trying to mimic the unmoving nature of limited animation. The only real exception to this is Kim Mu-yeol, who relishes his villain role, and plays his character as slimy and shitty as he can and ends up being by far the most entertaining part of the entire film.
Kim unfortunately has picked up a few bad habits from his time in the US, and bogs down a lot of the intense espionage thriller scenes with unnecessary exposition and flashbacks. I feel like much of the movie didn’t need to be quite as chatty, and would have helped trim down its overly long 140-minute runtime. That, and the fact that the movie goes on for 15 minutes after when it should have ended, giving us an entirely different ending to the one in the original film. I’m not sure what Kim was going for here – whether it was a mandated “happy” ending, or a personal choice to end it hopefully – but Im’s decisions right at the end of the film end up undoing a lot of the themes of the franchise, and while it might give his character more closure it also feels very … Hollywood.
I’ve seen a lot of shitty live action anime movies and for all its faults, Illang compares favourably. It’s competently made, looks like the source material it’s adapting, and follows the story faithfully. Visually, there’s a lot I liked, from the moody cinematography to the absolutely banging Kerberos armour, which could have easily looked comically bad in real life. It’s just that Illang just doesn’t do any of this better than its predecessor. It’s impossible to recommend because everything Jin-Roh does just works more, and the new stuff Illang brings to the table – such as its setting – amounts to nothing short of dressing. As such, Illang might look every part the wolf, but it’s been thoroughly declawed.
Verdict: Though hardly terrible by any stretch of the imagination, Illang: The Wolf Brigade is lazily adapted, and as such loses much of what made the original so striking.
Overall entertainment: 5.5/10
Bloody Friday: Very funny Battle Royal style nonsense
Hose escape: It was bullshit when John McClane did it, even more so here
Illang: The Wolf Brigade (2019)
Also known as: 인랑
Director: Kim Jee-Woon
Writers: Kim Jee-woon, Jeon Cheol-hong
Gang Dong-won – Im Joong-kyung
Han Hyo-joo – Lee Yoon-hee
Jung Woo-sung – Jang Jin-tae
Kim Mu-yeol – Han Sang-woo
Han Ye-ri – Goo Mi-kyung
Choi Min-ho – Kim Cheol-jin
Shin Eun-soo – Lee Jae-hee
Choi Jin-ho – Chief Presidential Secretary Bak Jeong-gi