The Swordsman (2020) is the latest film from Well Go USA Entertainment. If you are not familiar with Well Go USA, they are, in my opinion, the premier distribution label when it comes to bringing foreign movies to America. This is the company responsible for distributing Train to Busan, Triple Threat, Possessor, and the Wolf Warrior movies, among many others, so any time they release a new movie, I’m automatically interested. When I saw the trailer to The Swordsman, I was hooked. First, it stars the incredible Joe Taslim (The Raid, The Night Comes for Us, Mortal Kombat). Second, the action in the trailer looked incredible. The bar was set and my hopes were high.
The plot is one we’ve all seen many times before. A former swordsman, Tae-yul (Jang Hyuk), lives a life of isolation with his daughter in the mountains. He was nearly blinded protecting the king during a coup and has since given up his old life as a swordsman. There are some political sub-plots that drive the events of the story, but the only thing you need to know is this; Tae-yul’s daughter gets taken, he gets angry, and he comes out of retirement to kick some ass and save his daughter. Like I said, not exactly original, but the execution of the storyline is superb. The beginning might seem a bit slow, with the action not kicking in until the 45-50 minute mark, but the story and characters are interesting enough to get through that.
The acting is very good across the board. Jang Hyuk brings fantastic physicality to the main role of Tae-yul, who is a silent warrior type. Those characters can be cool and, don’t get me wrong, he is very cool, but his subdued quiet nature makes the character a bit bland. We neve get a sense of who the character is. He is simply the hero, a badass fighter with no shades of grey. Fortunately, that skill as a fighter is put on full display and it more than makes up for the lack of character development.
Sadly, the same can’t be said for Joe Taslim’s villain character, Gurutai. This is a stock villain role, with very little to make him stand out. Taslim does well in the role, but he is on the sideline for most of the movie. We are told constantly that Gurutai is a terrifying warrior, but we never see this until the very end. Luckily, Taslim has a fantastic screen presence which makes the villain more interesting than he probably should be.
The standout role, in my opinion, is Man-sik Jeong as Min Seung-ho, a swordsman embroiled in the political unrest whose loyalties and skill are tested throughout. Seung-ho is easily the most interesting character of the movie, probably because he is the only one with any real characterization. He is a man who truly cares about his people, but who fights for and against people that simply want power, no matter the cost to the people. At times he feels like a villain, and at other times he seems heroic. He is an incredibly interesting character, and Man-sik Jeong portrays his gravitas and inner turmoil perfectly.
As I stated before, it takes a while for the action to start, but once it starts, it does not let up! It’s early in the year still, but this is a lock to be in my top 5 action movies of the year list. The action varies with Tae-yul fighting individual fights, 2-on-1 fights, and even taking on massive amounts of ninjas at once. In each instance, Jang Hyuk’s skills and athleticism are shown clearly and the musical score just adds to the intensity.
All of the action is incredible, but the best part is the final showdown between Tae-yul and Gurutai. Like I said earlier, I was a bit bummed that Taslim wasn’t more involved in the action scenes, but I’ll give them this; The decision to have him not participate built up the anticipation for the inevitable final fight, and it more than lived up to those expectations. It’s a good combination of anticipation for the fight with the culmination of the story’s events, which makes for an intimate and emotionally charged fight. Taslim is fantastic, as always, and this fight is exactly what I hoped for when I saw the trailer.
First time director Jae-Hoon Choi’s camerawork is incredible. He utilizes everything from long takes, to close-ups, but it never feels too flashy or chaotic. It perfectly showcases the actors abilities and, in many cases, the movement and cuts highlight the moves and fighting styles. I was very impressed with his work, and I will definitely be looking out for his future projects.
Overall, The Swordsman is far from perfect. The story lacks originality and there are some issues with pacing and characterization. That being said, the acting, the amazing choreography and fighting skills, and the superb camerawork and score more than make up for its flaws. It comes short of being an action classic, but I’d still call it a must watch for action movie fans.