Film: 71 – Into The Fire ****
Release date: 14th March 2011
Running time: 116 mins
Director: John H. Lee
Starring: Cha Seung-won, Kwone Sang-woo, Choi Seung-hyun, Kim Seung-woo
Studio: Cine Asia
Format: DVD & Blu-ray
Country: South Korea
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Reviewer: Adam Wing
Remember back in 1991 when terrorists seized control of an elite boarding school, and a group of trouble-making boys - led by head Goonie Sean Astin - took it upon themselves to fight back. Louis Gossett Jr. played Dean Edward Parker and boyhood wonder Toy Soldiers was born - well I loved it anyway. Now imagine Toy Soldiers set in Korea, where the guns are bigger and the warfare is based on fact. I might be selling 71: Into The Fire a little short on this one, comparing it to a fantastical schoolboy adventure, but John H. Lee’s spectacular war epic touches on similar themes of heroism, defiance against all odds and plucky determination.
During the devastating Korean War, 71 South Korean soldiers stood guard at a middle school and defended an important strategic point from hundreds of North Korean soldiers - most of them students, not yet soldiers. Director John H. Lee (A Moment to Remember) brings the story to life with a pitch-perfect cast that includes Kwon Sang Woo, Cha Seung Won and Kim Seung Woo.
In June 1950, a war between North and South Korea broke out, threatening to destroy everything that lay in its path. A South Korean soldier (Kim Seung Woo) is ordered to take his troops to assist a group of young soldiers defending a girl’s boarding school near the Nakdong River. The ragtag band of inexperienced soldiers, which includes resident bad boy Gap Su (Kwon Sang Woo), is led by Jang Beom (T.O.P), the only member of the group with any kind of battle experience.
After providing pretty much zero training for the youthful squadron, the ‘expert’ soldiers head off towards the Nakdong River in order to fight the North Koreans. However, an enemy battalion, led by a reliably sinister General Park (Cha Seung Won), take an alternate path that just so happens to be headed in the direction of Jang Beom's newbie squadron. Chaos ensues - bringing with it powerful explosions, adrenaline pumping battle scenes and emotional turmoil by the tank-load. 71: Into the Fire is available now on both DVD and Blu-ray, courtesy of Cine-Asia.
Back home, the casting of Korean rapper T.O.P caused quite the stir, but I’m pleased to report that I’ve never heard of T.O.P. or in fact his popular K-band Big Bang. I’m more interesting in the big bangs presented by John H. Lee’s exhausting feature, and on that note, 71: Into the Fire delivers at every turn. The action sequences are beautifully realised, utilising over-familiar cinematic techniques it has to be said, but few will escape the raw intensity of a picture orchestrated with passion and verve. Enormous explosions, dream-like slow-mo, handheld techniques - John H. Lee successfully balances the demands of modern audiences with the realism of warfare. Compact, intense and personal - it’s a modern war movie that truly benefits from the clear, crisp vision of high definition TV.
There are 71 soldiers bidding for your attention on the battlefield, and John H. Lee chooses to focus on but a handful of faces, thankfully Into the Fire burns far brighter as a result. T.O.P provides a subtle turn as leading officer Jang Beom, and few will fault his performance here - he makes for a vulnerable hero unwilling to surrender to both his alleged comrades and the harshness of war. Kwon Sang Woo comes on like he’s just signed up for the latest Battle Royale sequel, but his obligatory arrogance is finely balanced with that of deep-rooted fear, and the relationship he forms with Jang Beom is commendable.
Kim Seung Woo impresses in a limited supporting role (Dean Edward Parker anyone?), as does Cha Seung Won, playing the part of North Korean commander General Park. Both flawed and ruthless, Cha Seung Won encapsulates the confusion of war, delivering a scene-stealing performance that warrants your complete attention and a lot more screen time. There are a few characters that could’ve benefited from greater depth, not least the two brothers called upon to provide an emotional hook - not to mention one hell of screen exit that sets the screen on fire. It’s fair to say that everybody gets to play hero in John H. Lee’s masterful tribute to bravery.
There are a few flaws waiting to be discovered, because 71: Into the Fire sticks rigidly to the template laid down by Spielberg’s Private Ryan for maximum commercial appeal. However, Into the Fire just about escapes the clutches of sentimentality, and John H. Lee successfully reigns in the emotional downpour for the most part, even if he does resort to theatrical tear dropping from time to time. That’s just fine though, war films without emotional payoff are like musicals without dance numbers - the two go hand in hand like a walk in the park.
War films have been done to death of course, but 71: Into the Fire presents us with the prescribed dosage of foolhardy heroism, spectacular pyrotechnics and over-reaching sentimentality. It’s quite literally a blast from start to finish, and I didn’t even mention Korean blockbuster Taegukgi: The Brotherhood of War at all. Damn it.