Any action movie that bears a title like The City of Violence raises the bar in terms of expectation, and in the case of Ryoo Seung-Wan’s 2006 revenge flick, those expectations are not just met, but exceeded. The film may not do anything original in terms of plot or character development, but in terms of balls-to-the-wall action, it elevates itself into the same stratosphere as some of the better films of the genre.
As the film unfolds, the title “The City of Violence” turns out to be wholly appropriate, considering that the protagonists end up facing down what seems like an entire city by film’s end. A single act of violence provides the impetus for the plot; the funeral of an old friend lures Seoul-based police detective Jung Tae-Soo (Jung Doo-Yong) back to his hometown of Onsung. It seems that Tae-Soo’s deceased pal, a reformed street tough named Wang-Jae (Ahn Kil-Kang), was stabbed to death by some local teenage thugs after an earlier disagreement.
However, Tae-Soo isn’t buying the official line, so he decides to launch his own informal investigation to find out the truth and bust a few heads along the way. While paying his respects to his departed pal, the detective runs into a trio of high school buddies: the Jheri-curled mob boss, Jung Pil-Ho (Lee Beom-Soo); math teacher and Wang-Jae’s brother, Dong Hwan (Jeong Seok-Yong); and brawler Seok-Hwan (director Ryoo Seung-Wan himself). On his quest for justice, loyalties are betrayed, wrongs are righted, and asses are most definitely kicked.
City of Violence culminates in a delirious Scarface meets A Better Tomorrow 2-style ending that's more focused on fists than firearms. Often, the phrase “a video game come to life” is used to describe certain action films, but in this case, I’d say the comparison is apt. If City of Violence is a video game, then it’s the arcade version of Double Dragon filtered through the lens of Kill Bill. The sheer number and variety of onscreen opponents is astounding. Not content with just run-of-the-mill gangsters, the film throws all sorts of baddies at our heroes: breakdancers, BMX bandits, hockey stick hooligans, badass chicks in schoolgirl outfits, a makeup-clad baseball team, and some more villains straight out of the Walter Hill’s 1979 cult classic,The Warriors.
Stylistically, the film seems to borrow heavily from the Sergio Leone-style Spaghetti Western, with familiar visual touches like extreme close-ups, and also an Ennio Morricone-influenced soundtrack. The City of Violence doesn’t do anything particularly revolutionary with the genre, with the unrelenting pace seeming overwhelming, or even mind-numbing at times. But thanks to the bone-crunching stunts, a rapturous visual palette, and interesting action set pieces, it’s a film well-worth seeing - that is, if beat ‘em up action is your particular cup of tea. (Calvin McMillin, 2009)