The rule of 'the bigger they are, the harder they fall' continued to claim fresh victims well into 2003, adding to the growing list of big-budget disasters that had started the year before. Joining the ranks of such dubious underachievers as "R.U. Ready?" and "Resurrection of the Little Match Girl (Seongnangpali Songyeoeul Jaerim)" was "Tube (Tyubeu)", a popcorn actioner unashamedly inspired by every 'Die Hard on a subway' imaginable, including "Speed", "The Money Train", and "The Taking of Pelham One Two Three".
The first sign of trouble is when the film opens up with a daring assault on Seoul's Gimpo Airport that is sorely lacking in context. Heading the assault is a terrorist named T (Park Sang-min), who, along with his two of his comrades-in-arms, successfully pockets a data chip from a heavily guarded government official. And even though there are only three of them, T (no relation to Ice) and his men manage to take down several heavily armed SWAT teams and make their way to the getaway vehicle. The only resistance they encounter is from a maverick cop (is there any other kind?) named Jay (Kim Seok-hun) who happens to have uncovered the terrorist plot by studying some photographs. But despite such efforts, T gets away and Jay ends up getting chewed out by the brass for interfering.
And so Jay heads back to his usual beat, which is keeping Seoul's subway system crime-free. In another area that is in dire need of some exposition, his path crosses with a young pickpocket named (get ready for it) Kay (Bae Du-na), who is so infatuated with Jay that she has been pulling a 'Faye Wong' à la "Chungking Express (Chong qing sen lin)" (i.e. she breaks into his apartment when he is not at home and cleans up). Of course, like the Tony Leung's character in "Chungking Express", Jay is oblivious to both her feelings and meddling, and remains fixated on the death of his girlfriend, who was killed by T not too long ago. And wouldn't you know it-- T's girlfriend happens to have been killed by Jay! The symmetry is almost uncanny!
The story kicks into high gear when T and his right-hand man board a subway and end up being spotted by Kay, who immediately calls up Jay and begins tailing them herself. Without wasting any time, T hijacks the train, laces it with explosives, and threatens to blow it up unless his demands are met. Among the hostages under T's control are the mayor of Seoul, a news crew covering his subway photo opportunity, some slice-'o-life passengers, and Kay. Thankfully, Jay manages to board the train in the nick of time.
Meanwhile, another confrontation is unfolding in the subway's main operations center between the police, the government bureaucrats, and the chief controller of the subway (Son Byeong-ho). The police want to storm the train with guns blazing, the bureaucrats want to sweep the situation under the rug as quickly and as quietly as possible, while the chief controller cares only about the safety of the passengers.
As the resident John McClane, Jay does whatever he can to stop T's nefarious scheme and save the day. Of course, his actions end up frustrating the efforts of the bureaucrats and the police to maintain a semblance of control on the situation. But as the evil plans of T are gradually revealed and all other attempts to remedy the situation fail, all eyes turn to Jay...
Behind the camera for "Tube" is first-time director Baek Woon-hak, whose previous gigs including being an assistant director on "Shiri (Swiri)" and work in the television commercial arena. For the most part, Baek's background leaves its imprint on "Tube", as it slickly machine guns through its two-hour running time with almost wall-to-wall action and Attention Deficit Disorder-friendly editing. Other than a 20-minute lull after the opening action sequence, "Tube" mimics the structure of the film it 'pays homage' to, "Speed", with a new complication thrown into the mix every 10-15 minutes to keep up the momentum. And while this may have worked back in 1995, when action films of this ilk were still being referred to as 'Die Hard on a -----' (as opposed to 'Speed on a -----') and before "Speed"-type films became so commonplace in the direct-to-video world, a movie like "Tube" seems woefully outmoded in this day and age.
It also does not help that the script strains credibility at every turn, while trafficking in enough clichés to choke a horse. While some viewers may find the film's opening shootout to be a bit difficult to swallow, the implausibility meter goes off the scale when just two terrorists manage to wipe out a few dozen SWAT officers surrounding their subway car. The old 'lighter in the coat pocket' as a means of bulletproofing a main character (e.g., John Woo's "Hard Boiled") is also put to use, though the sturdiness of the metal object used here is suspect. Also be sure to perk up your ears when you hear a passing conversation in the operations center about a bridge being closed for construction, as you know that the hijacked subway car will invariably head toward it. Finally, though T and his right-hand man have been trained to kill without compunction, they end up being complete wusses when it comes to doing away with someone important, artificially prolonging seemingly hopeless situations. For example, while T is quick to shoot a bunch of inconsequential hostages, he inexplicably spares Kay's life (despite her having seriously set back his plans) and deliberately empties his gun of bullets when he meets up with Jay so that they can fight mano-a-mano.
However, given that this is a Korean film, it is also interesting to see the distinctive cultural touches that have been applied to this Hollywood-style actioner. The injection of romantic melodrama, the long-standing favorite genre of Korean film audiences, is the most noticeable, particularly with the inevitable separation that the would-be lovers must endure near the end, as well as the film's bittersweet ending, which is a bit removed from the traditional Hollywood ending. Unfortunately, the confusing presentation of the romantic backstory at the beginning of the film ends up sapping the emotion from the proceedings, and thus the combination of action and romantic melodrama never comes close to the potent concoction found in "Shiri". Furthermore, in a country where political corruption is a problem that never seems to go away, it is not surprising to see the long-standing distrust of politicians figuring quite heavily into the story, as well as the efforts of the working class joes, and not those of the bureaucrats, winning the day.
Complementing the film's lazy storytelling are the lackluster performances. As the leading man, "The Legend of Gingko (Danjeogbiyeonsu)" alumnus Kim delivers an uninvolving performance and is painfully out of his depth in the film's weightier moments. Bae almost destroys any goodwill she built up in "Take Care of My Cat (Goyangireul buiakhae)" and "Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance (Boksuneun naeui geos)" with her dubious turn as a danger-seeking damsel in distress, while chief bad guy Park ("The Hidden Princess") deserves special recognition for holding the same stone-cold expression throughout the entire film. Other players of note include Son as the down-to-earth transit head and Jeong Jun ("Attack the Gas Station!") for his overwrought portrayal of a recently married subway employee who learns that his pregnant wife is on the hijacked train.
"Tube" was originally scheduled to unspool in its native South Korea in the spring of 2003, but ended up being pushed back to the summer after the Daegu subway fire tragedy in February hit a little too close to home. But despite its lavish production values, eye-catching action sequences, and a slick marketing campaign, "Tube" quickly went down the tubes after a much-ballyhooed opening in June. Alas, burdened with the unforgivable plot holes and contrivances of a brain-dead script, this roller-coaster ride is left idling on the tracks.
This movie is available for order from DVDAsian.com