Playing a video game is fun, but watching someone else play one can become tiresome pretty quickly. This is the most rational explanation as to why any action film that aims to mimic the medium’s aesthetic, be it 2015’s Hardcore Henry or the collected oeuvre of Neveldine and Taylor, will become exhausting by the end of its first act. One sequence in this style might be exhilarating, but anything more can become a recipe for a headache, as framing an action sequence in the style of a video game often means the action itself won’t be staged particularly well; in a game, after all, you could be attacked from any angle, with rival players not entering the gameplay in a way that’s easy on the eye.
Director Jung Byung-gil, who rose to international prominence with his previous feature, 2017’s The Villainess, has previously managed to adopt the visual aesthetic of that medium to great effect. The opening sequence to that film was a six-minute unbroken take which plays out like a first-person-shooter come to life, a violent bloodbath unfolding with the audience witnessing it all from the main character’s perspective. The problem with his follow-up film Carter, now streaming on Netflix, is that it feels like a very conscious decision to try and better what he managed to achieve with that film’s action sequences. Here, the entire film is designed to flow as if it were in a single take, even if the supposedly hidden edits in-between shots are nakedly apparent – unfortunately, Jung’s ambition is not matched by his approach, which increasingly favours distractingly poor CGI to make his vision come to life, something that only works to the detriment of the fight choreography itself.
Joo Won stars as Carter, a secret agent who wakes up one day to find his memories have been wiped – so far, so Jason Bourne. He discovers that, for the past couple of months, a deadly pandemic has ravaged North Korea, and his function is now to rescue a young hostage amidst this backdrop, following the instructions of a mysterious handler on his headset. He’s immediately thrown into a bloody cat and mouse chase as he’s chased by North Korean officials and members of the CIA, many of whom have become more violent after coming into contact with this zombie-like virus.
Ultimately, the film becomes too preoccupied with the minute details of its convoluted plot. Every time the film slows down for a moment of exposition, it has the unfortunate resemblance of a video game cutscene, asking you to become invested in an international conspiracy that should have remained a McGuffin to kick off the carnage and nothing more. In the film’s opening half hour, the relentless pacing – which rushes from a bathhouse fist fight with seemingly an entire city’s worth of goons, to a tense motorcycle chase – makes for something irresistible, but this proves to be unsustainable very quickly.
This is largely due to the myriad of filmmaking techniques Jung uses to bring the action to life, with the supposedly single take manoeuvring from a hovering drone camera that circles the actors to a POV shot not unlike the one so memorably used in the opening of The Villainess, frequently within the same sequence. It’s undeniably ambitious, and easy to applaud if only for its sheer audacity, but the finished result isn’t particularly appealing visually. Yes, he’s managed to frame each fight sequence and shoot out with a sense of clarity despite the constantly roving camera, but so many CGI elements have had to be utilised to seamlessly move the action from one location to another, while still giving the illusion of a single take, that it’s easy to be distracted. It’s hard to pay attention to the choreography when you’re faced with, for example, dreadful dated graphics of a character jumping out of a plane, or any number of large-scale disasters that are faced. At times, it can feel like we’re watching the rough animatics mapping out each sequence, which have been accidentally uploaded to Netflix by accident.
By the end, Carter remains easy to appreciate in terms of its sheer ambition – but with the exception of its opening stretch, the execution doesn’t match director Jung’s lofty aims.
Written by Alistair Ryder