WHEN IT COMES to revenge movies, South Korea has had its finger on the squicky trigger for over a decade now, with titles like Oldboy, Memories of Murder, and Nowhere to Hide all proving to be superlatively staged, razor-taut films about some remarkably depraved subjects. Clocking in at 140 minutes, the hotly fanboy-anticipated I Saw the Devil clearly aspires to be the magnum opus of the genre, with a truly loathsome villain and scenes of torture that might have even the most hardened gorehounds reaching for the Pepto.
Beginning with a shudderingly effective snowbound abduction scene, the plot follows a dashing secret agent (Lee Byung-hun, sporting a truly rad leather hoodie) bent on unleashing justice upon the murderer of his pregnant fiancée. Upon tracking down the maniac (Oldboy's majestically bedraggled Choi Min-sik), he proceeds to implant him with a tracking device and follow him across the countryside, popping in to beat the daylights out of him at regular intervals.
Director Kim Jee-woon (The Good, the Bad, the Weird and A Tale of Two Sisters) pays only lip service to logic throughout, with a bad guy that shifts between gibbering loon and Hannibal-level evil genius seemingly at whim. However, while his narrative eventually reaches the point of absurdist black comedy—just when you think it can't get any grosser, here comes a cannibal!—his handling of individual set pieces is really something to marvel at. Shorn of half an hour, and with perhaps a bit more left to the imagination, this could've been an expertly uneasy thriller of the sort that rattles around in the brain long into the night. As it stands, though, this cautionary tale about the dangers of staring into the abyss roars so gloppily far over the top that it ultimately deadens the nerves. Which is most likely the point, I realize, but sheesh.