The best damned action film of the summer has nothing to do with comic books and does not feature some perfectly-put-together gym rat in tights sticking “the super-hero landing.”
It’s Korean, and before you ask, there’s nary a Busan zombie in sight.
“Escape from Mogadishu” is a nerve-wracking account of diplomats scrambling to escape Somalia just as the 1990 civil war erupted and finished the country’s transition to “failed state.”
They were representatives of the two Koreas, so their harrowing attempt to get out didn’t get much attention in the West. And while I can’t vouch for how much of this Ryoo Seung-wan thriller is the literal truth, what we see is just jaw-dropping. Nothing Hollywood could dream up tops the action climax that real history and Ryoo (“The City of Violence,” “The Battleship Island”) serve up here.
I mean, WOW.
The setting is the “Killing Fields” anarchy that set in the instant Somali civilians rose up to overthrow their dictatorship, thereby inviting rebel militias to charge in and overwhelm the army and police of the capital. The story has a hint of “Argo” about it, as the South Korean and North Korean embassies, blood enemies, have to cooperate to get their tiny staffs out before the slaughter reach them.
This is pre-“Blackhawk Down,” before U.S. intervention in the humanitarian disaster, and long before lawlessness settled into an equilibrium where militias and war lords ran everything and piracy (“Captain Phillips”) became a leading export.
Ryoo introduces us to the players, overwhelmed South Korean Ambassador Han (Kim Yoon-seok, amusingly flustered), hopeful that he can “gift” and negotiate his way into favor with the Somali President Barre, and new enough to the job that he still frets about why the North Koreans “can’t play by the rules.”
South Korea was courting many countries in Africa, looking for the votes for U.N. membership. North Korea’s cunning Ambassador Rim (Heo Joon-ho, deliciously aloof and arrogant) is hellbent on stopping that.
There’s just enough of the diplomatic struggles, the spy game played out by each ambassador’s young, thin and Raybanned “intelligence” counselor (Jo In-sung plays the upstart South Korean, Koo Kyo-hwan is his runty, short-tempered North Korean counterpart) to give an idea of the stakes and the place this “game” is playing out in.
Double-crosses, double-dealing when it comes to arms sales, the North was eating the South’s lunch.
A CIA memo and an Aussie journalist might say of the Somalis that they “don’t think they’re ready for a civil war, yet,” but events quickly prove them wrong. The riots turn into an armed insurrection, the power goes out, communications crash and looting and rebel infiltrators turn the entire city into a free fire zone.
The tiny Korean consulates don’t have guards to protect them, the means of getting out and can’t even call home for fresh orders. They’re on their own, with undisciplined, trigger-happy child soldiers holding their fate in their Somali hands.
Can the two hated enemies “steel” their “hearts” and help each other out of this fix?
Ryoo gives us one tense standoff after another at embassy gates, government ministries (abruptly abandoned as the “real” looters — the government — fled), in the streets and in the consulates once the shooting and looting begins.
The story is related through parallel characters. The ambassadors must save face, follow protocols or agree to break them “through (personal) negotiation.” Their mistrust is amplified in their subordinates, with one intelligence agent demanding that his boss not approach “those South Korean bastards” and the other insisting they can’t trust “those commie bastards.”
The humor in the story — and yes, there’s humor even in Dante’s Inferno playing out in the Horn of Africa — comes from that mistrust and hatred. The North Korean children of the staff have their eyes shielded from the decor in the dark, shell-shattered South Korean embassy. Too many Seoul Olympics posters and pictures of prosperity are capable of corrupting their young minds.
An awkward shared meal is tense right up to the moment Ambassador Han realizes the commies fear the food is poisoned.
And we’ve seen how Han’s wife (So-jin Kim), a pious Christian, imposes her “Let us pray” on even the Buddhists in her husband’s staff. But when it comes to breaking the ice, it is wives and families who make the first progress. But “pathos” of the “Why can’t we get along?” variety never settles in. Relations range from hostile to frosty to grudging, but never further.
The sets are a sea of fires and firefights, as impressive as anything Ridley Scott managed for “Blackhawk Down.” But the struggles here aren’t so much heroic as just human, flawed people under pressure struggling to improvise their way out of a life-or-death jam, and bitching about who used the toilet after the water was cut off.
It’s not giving too much to say that the movie’s climax involves a convoy, and I’ve never been more nostalgic for my 1980 Mercedes 240D, thanks to these scenes of overbuilt German cars rumbling through a hail of lead and Molotov cocktails.
You want great action? Eschew the comic book movies and read a few subtitles. “Escape from Mogadishu” is in a league of its own this summer.
MPA Rating: TV-14, violence, profanity
Cast: Kim Yoon-seok, In-Sung Jo, Huh Joon-ho, So-jin Kim, Kyo-hwan Koo, Man-sik Jeong
Credits: Scripted and directed by Ryoo Seung-wan. A Well Go USA release.
Running time: 2:01