Steel Rain / ??? cooks up a button-pushing doomsday scenario as a super-skilled North Korean agent teams up with a dorky presidential aide to stave off a nuclear war. Adapted by writer-director Yang Woo-suk from his own webtoon, it stars Jung Woo-sung and Kwak Do-won, and aired on Netflix on March 14, 2018.
Steel Rain / ??? arrives at an opportune time. The isolated Communist utopia of North Korea has been rightly mocked in the West for a long time, but these days, the place is less funny and more frightening. They aren’t behaving any weirder than usual, but suddenly there’s an overgrown haunted Wotsit in the White House who keeps publically offering their Supreme Leader a straightener. And that’s a terrifying proposition, what with both heads of state having publically bragged about the size of their nuclear buttons.
The particulars are slightly complex and a bit convenient, but escalating geopolitical tensions tend to be. Um Cheol-woo (Jung) is an elite, hyper-competent North Korean agent who is tasked by General Lee Tae-han (Kim Kap-soo) to knock off two blokes who threaten state security. Travelling to the economic zone of Kaesong, he witnesses a hypothetical coup d’état which results in the Supreme Leader (here referred to as “Number One”) being critically injured. You never see his adorable Pillsbury Dough Boy face, but the thought of him being stuffed in the back of a van and hustled all the way to Seoul should be enjoyable for Korean and American audiences both.
In search of medical aid, our hero breaks into the clinic of a gynaecologist (Park Eun-hye) who takes one look at Number One’s nuclear button and determines he’s beyond her field of expertise. She instead recommends her best pal, (Kim Ji-ho), a plastic surgeon who just so happens to be the ex-wife of Kwak Cheol-woo (Kwak), the secretary of national security at the Blue House – which is the presidential office, presumably named by a decidedly unimaginative architect.
The odd-couple dynamic between Jung and Kwak forms the backbone of the film, so it’s just as well they meet, but if you think their introduction is a bit convenient their outsized influence on the broader diplomatic carryings-on aren’t going to sit well with you either. Yang has written a complex scenario that doesn’t seem too far-fetched, but he’s still got a bombastic cloak-and-dagger thrill ride to orchestrate, and some concessions have to be made for there to be enough room for both.
Luckily for everyone, Steel Rain / ??? has enough well-orchestrated action and high-end (by Korean standards) special effects that the anti-Communist hysteria takes something of a back seat. Some of the flair is likely lifted directly from Yang’s webcomic original, and has that splash panel vibe, but a lot of it is also clearly inspired by popular Western filmmaking; mob-drama-style Jenga-stacking of short scenes in which various North Korean officials get offed, for instance, or the mounting orchestral build-up of a big war-movie set-piece. (To be fair, Steel Rain sets the scene with a full-on missile altercation just to let everyone knows what’s up.)
Jung Woo-sung handles himself well in the action department, particularly in hand-to-hand fistfights choreographed by Choi Bong-rok and edited by Lee Gang-hee to be as wince-worthy as possible. Left on his own in dramatic scenes he’s a bit wonky, but thankfully most of the time he can rely on his rapport with Kwak, who plays a likable pencil-pusher who’s so choked by red tape at work and so frequently undermined by his snooty ex-wife and spoiled kids that he quickly becomes the heart and soul of Steel Rain.
The contrast between Kwak’s calm and faintly sad demeanor and Jung’s stone-cold stoicism is where Steel Rain finds a lot of pointed commentary; both patronising jabs at the backwardness of Korea’s Northern Communist counterparts, and the idea of old-fashioned masculine tough-guy heroism being incompatible with global politics. It isn’t particularly deep or nuanced but, frankly, who cares? It didn’t have to be there and it is, so credit where it’s due.
Despite only debuting on Netflix today, Steel Rain / ??? was released last year, along with three-or-so other action-thrillers themed around North Korea. We’ll likely see about that many this year too, which proves that whether or not Steel Rain manages to find a broad audience, it’s clearly tapping into very real and relatable tensions on the Korean Peninsula. If a certain Western world leader has been good for one thing besides tugging publically on his shrivelled orange member, it’s giving a bit more prominence to thrilling Korean cinema. The fact he’d inevitably be furious about that makes it all the more satisfying.