A slick and pulse-pounding thriller, Cold Eyes (감시자들) is a consistently engaging cat-and-mouse cop drama by co-directors Jo Eui-seok (조의석) and Kim Byeong-seo (김병서). Gaining an impressive 5.5+ million admissions during its run, Cold Eyes has remade the 2007 Hong Kong thriller Eye in the Sky in a distinctly Korean fashion, eschewing the hard boiled noir in favour of highly polished Seoul landscapes and state of the art technology.
The strengths of the film lie in the kinetic sequences and exhilarating pacing, as well as the performances by the lead actors who have been wonderfully cast-against-type. Cold Eyes is not without flaws however, largely involving fleshing out the supporting cast and a third act that isn’t quite sure how to resolve everything. Yet such issues are easy to overlook when a genre film such as this is so engaging and enjoyable, and is quite the thrill ride throughout.
Trained in the skills of surveillance and endowed with an incredible photographic memory, rookie Yoon-joo (Han Hyo-joo (한효주) works hard to join an elite government agency under the watchful eyes of Chief Hwang (Seol Kyeong-gu (설경구). Yoon-joo’s arrival is timely, as a group of expert criminals have been stealing from notably high profile targets, constantly getting away without leaving a shred of evidence. Yet during their latest crime a small but significant clue has been discovered. Joining Chief Hwang’s unit, recruit Yoon-joo – now code-named ‘piglet’ – must put her skills to the test and follow the trail of breadcrumbs to the mastermind behind the operations, the cold and calculating ‘Shadow’ (Jeong Woo-seong (정우성).
Immediately upon opening, Cold Eyes establishes itself as a cool and slick thriller. The futuristic metallic surfaces of the subway and high rise commerce zone in Seoul are highly impressive as Yoon-joo follows her target, turning the capital into a character in itself. The sequence is also exemplary in the construction of Yoon-joo as a rookie surveillance operative, as she works hard to notice and remember every minute detail no matter how insignificant, yet still makes enough mistakes to be believable and sympathetic. Not content with such a compelling opening, directors Jo and Kim follow it up shortly after with an engaging bank heist by uber-criminal Shadow. Clearly the co-directors have been influenced by the Joker’s bank job in The Dark Knight, and while Cold Eyes never reaches those heights, it is still thoroughly entertaining. The manner in which the criminals orchestrate their robberies is also quite thrilling, as Shadow watches from the rooftops to ensure a clean getaway while his henchmen busy themselves with the mission at hand, allowing for a duel perspective on events as well as providing even more polished cinematography of the Seoul skyline.
Another great strength of the film is undoubtedly the A-list cast who have been brilliantly cast against type. This is acutely the case for Han Hyo-joo who has been consistently cast as the love interest in several mediocre melodramas. In Cold Eyes the actress shines as an intelligent, skilled, and powerful operative, and it is a genuine delight to see a woman occupying such a role in a Korean film. Han Hyo-joo’s famed attractiveness is refreshingly never focused upon throughout the film with attention instead bestowed on her prowess, and the actress clearly relishes the role. Meanwhile Sol Kyeong-gu also excels as disheveled mentor Chief Hwang. Sol initially portrays the team leader with a commanding stoicism and intellectual fortitude, yet as story progresses it is primarily due to him that comedy enters the film thanks to his eccentricities. Naming every member of his team rather unflattering animal code-names is genuinely funny – particularly when designating their rotund target ‘thirsty hippo’ – yet such unorthodox methods are also crucial as he carves and maneuvers animal chess pieces on missions. As the ruthless and manipulative ‘Shadow’, Jeong Woo-seong is great. Typically cast as a romantic lead and/or inherently ‘good’, Jeong is surprisingly adept at playing the role of a cold-hearted villain with a penchant for murdering with a fountain pen. While he has the least to do of the three performers, every scene he is in is constantly engrossing and it’s a tribute to the actor that more screen time is desired.
For much of the running time Cold Eyes is an incredibly engaging cat-and-mouse thriller, and the entertainment derived from both sides attempting to outsmart each other is consistently high. Yet there are moments, most notably in the final act, that somewhat undermine all the great character work with silly coincidences in the attempt to tie up the story neatly. This is quite a shame considering what came before. Cold Eyes also fall into the trap of having too many underdeveloped secondary characters, with the belated attempts to flesh them out falling short. That said, the speedy pace of the film combined with the compelling story means that such concerns are never dwelt upon for long, with the open ended nature of the finale guaranteed to raise a smile.
Cold Eyes is a slick and riveting thriller from co-directors Jo Eui-seok and Kim Byeong-seo. A remake of hard boiled Hong Kong noir Eye in the Sky, Cold Eyes is a quite different film due to the focus on a seemingly futuristic Seoul and state of the art technology. The A-list cast, who have all been superbly cast against type, excel in their roles, particularly Han Hyo-joo as a highly intelligent and skilled rookie operative. With a highly engaging story and rapid pacing the film is consistently entertaining and, while some silly coincidences and over-abundance of secondary characters detract somewhat, Cold Eyes is a wonderfully compelling cat-and-mouse thrill-ride.