In Carter, the Korean action film recently released by Netflix, there are no brakes. From the moment it opens with a God's eye view of a bus moving along a city street, to the moment the titular amnesiac character, played by Joo Won, is woken up by CIA agents pointing pistols at his face, to Carter killing everyone in his path with unflagging energy and creativity, the movie consistently maintains a speed that few films would even attempt. It runs in place, at times — like when characters need to enter, deliver exposition, and exit — but it never rests.
I was first alerted to director Jung Byung-gil's fourth full-length feature through a tweet featuring one of Carter's early action scenes, in which our hero is riding a moped through the narrow streets of Seoul as unseen baddiesattempt to run him down. This scene was striking, highlighting the film's unique aesthetic, which borrows from one-take movies like Rope, Birdman, and 1917, but removes any sense of smoothness. As Carter rides past a window, the camera flies through it to follow, constantly zooming in and out at a rapid pace. Byung-gil keeps this up for the movie's entire 132 minute run-time. All of the film is shot in oners and pseudo-oners, stitched together like an adrenaline junkie Frankenstein's monster.
As I watched, I couldn't get over how similar Carter's story felt to the ones I've played through dozens of times in games. As soon as Carter wakes up, he's already engulfed in action, and spends the rest of the movie fleeing from bad guys and/or running toward a concrete goal. As he runs, a voice in his ear instructs him on where he should go. There's no end to how many henchmen his opponents have to throw at him, so wherever he goes, a wave of enemies is ready to crash ontop of him. This is a movie that feels like it was built with action set pieces in mind, then reverse-engineered into a story. Action movies are sometimes created that way. When Jackie Chan was directing Police Story, he found interesting locations first, then worked out a story second. And Mission: Impossible director Christopher McQuarrie asks Paramount what shots they need to sell the movie, then builds the rest of the film around those necessities.
Though there's precedent, this isn't how most movies are created. Typically a screenwriter writes a script, a producer champions it, a director or star signs on, and the technical aspects — like finding locations — fall into place afterward. Action movies are sometimes the exception because the thing that everyone is there to see (the action) is more important than the writing that connects it together. In that way, action movies are a lot like many triple-A video games where programmers, level designers, and artists get to work early, and a writer often comes in late. There are plenty of games where writers were involved from the beginning, but at least as often, the writer enters late to work their way backward into some connective story tissue.
Carter also feels like a video game in the ways that it attempts to get us to empathize with its lead character. Though Carter is a killing machine with no memory of who he is, the filmmakers give him a daughter he doesn't remember who is dangerously close to succumbing to a zombie-like virus, and have him rescue a child, Ha-na, midway through the movie. For the rest of the run-time, Carter is not just attempting to survive, he's working to protect a vulnerable child and trying to save another.
The Last of Us and God of War are both better than Carter, which throws so much hyperactively shot action at your face so quickly and without respite that it doesn't take long to become completely numb to it. But both games used the same playbook. Take a gruff, violent protagonist, saddle him with a kid to take care of, and watch him remember that life can be more than bullets, blades, and/or bloody knuckles. Carter throws two kids into the mix and hopes that it works, but its lead is such a cypher that it can't quite stick the landing.
Instead, it serves as a reminder of the concessions movies make when they try to be more like video games. Carter chooses to tell its story through exposition dumps but, unlike many video games, it doesn't have to. The assumption that video games often begin with — that you will be with this character in real-time as they make their way through a contiguous series of obstacles — isn't necessary in film. And, in fact, it takes a hacksaw to the grammar that movies have established over the past century and change with little benefit. The opening hour (at most) of Carter is immersive in the same way a good game is, but it gives way to the slog of a bad game in the second half. Carter made me wish I could set the controller down.
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