Review by Daniel Lima
How would humanity survive in a world that has faced an apocalyptic event? This question has fascinated people for as long as it could be raised, and in the aftermath of the worldwide societal disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has gained a new resonance. The post-apocalyptic action film Badland Hunters focuses little on how the world saw its end or the societies that formed in its wake. Instead, it adopts a simple narrative that happens to be set in such a world and so fails to distinguish itself from countless other works.
Technically a sequel to last year’s Concrete Utopia (though set years after and never referencing its events), the film stars Ma Dong-seok as… a hunter in the badlands of South Korea, years after an apocalyptic earthquake, working with a young partner and exchanging meat for goods within the small village he’s made home. When a local girl is spirited away to a mysterious apartment building in Seoul run by a scientist who may not be all that he seems, the two set out to get her back.
One of the appeals of this subgenre is the particular vision of a society rebuilding itself from the ashes, the strange new social dynamics and structures that arise when the old order disappears. Alternatively, you can just make the entire thing look like Mad Max and call it a day, which is the approach taken here. The world has an appropriately cobbled-together look: homes made from broken-down old buses and corrugated sheet metal, utilitarian costuming, and even the seemingly utopian apartment shows the wear of many hard years.
Unfortunately, the facade of a disused, grimy future is just that: a facade. The clothes are too clean, the stains on the walls too fresh. There’s an obvious artifice to every setting, a sheen that shatters the illusion of a fringe wasteland. Beyond that, the visual language of the film is comparable to any number of slick, polished, but anonymous Netflix releases. As gritty and desperate as this future is on paper, it is not reflected at all in how it is captured.
Compounding this is the lack of depth in the characters. Each is an archetype better summed up in how they figure into the story than any unique personality traits. Ma Dong-seok is the gruff tough guy who bulldozes through everything, his assistant is the plucky excitable apprentice meant to serve as his foil, the village girl is a living MacGuffin who loves her grandma. With no time spent elaborating on the setting and so much time spent with a small number of characters, one would hope that any of them would be easy to root for — or at least pleasant to be around. This is not the case.
Structurally, this movie is flawed from the start. Spoiling the plot is impossible, not only because it’s so familiar, but because the very first scene telegraphs the situation the protagonists will find themselves in. It’s a truly baffling decision because it robs the entire first hour of any mystery. Instead of the audience putting the pieces together along with the characters, the audience must wait for the characters to catch up — a premise inherently devoid of any dramatic tension. Taken with the blandness of both the setting and the people that populate it, this is an arduous task.
The sole saving grace is the action. Director Heo Myung-haeng has been working as a stuntman and action director for decades, even serving as Ma Dong-seok’s stunt double in the past, and he puts that experience to good use here. There is an impressive scale to the fights here, many juggling multiple combatants that move around and use their environment organically. The intensity of some of these scenes and the creativity and complexity in the choreography are the only times the film truly comes to life. And, of course, it’s hard not to cheer whenever the former boxer Ma Dong-seok punches someone. That man might be the single greatest puncher in action film history.
It’s to the benefit of Badland Hunters that so much of the action is back-ended. If left to linger on the limp, unambitious drama set in a paper-thin world, this would be a difficult film to recommend. While it’s still not an easy recommendation, anyone interested in seeing wildly powerful haymakers demolish bad guys left and right will have that urge satisfied. Whether that’s worth how lackluster the rest of the movie is... well, they really are great punches.
Badland Hunters hits Netflix January 26.