In its opening 10 minutes, The Villainess positively explodes out of the gate, with one of the best mass brawls since The Raid 2. As Sook-Hee (Ok-Bin Kim) shoots, slices, and smashes her way through an entire drug cartel, Byung-Gil Jung’s film makes a furiously exciting statement of intent that it unfortunately can’t quite keep up for its full two hour runtime. The action here is exquisitely done, but there’s not enough of it to ignore a rather impact-free love story and a central conspiracy that is far too convoluted to fully invest in. When it’s in full swing, it’s thrillingly kinetic, but the pace dips all too often.
Starting out with a lengthy first-person segment, The Villainess’s first set piece made me very glad that its simulatanous VOD and cinema release allowed me to watch it on a laptop. Vicious and lightning fast, any bigger screen might well have knocked me out with nauseating dizziness. It’s daring and inspired (the shot that snaps us back into a third person view is spine-tinglingly good) and completely disorienting, thrusting us into the driven but frightened headspace of Sook-Hee. Importantly, despite her immense skill and killing capability, Sook-Hee never feels overly in control in any given fight, keeping the drama alive even as she dispatches goons by to dozens
Caught by the police at the end of her massacre, she’s taken in by a shadowy government agency, who send her to an all-female assassin academy before letting her loose back into the world. Everyone’s motivations are opaque and shady, and though the title implies a distinct baddie figure, the only morality here is a blood-splattered shade of grey. Her first assignment leads to another masterpiece of an action scene, a motorbike sword fight that is a staggering ‘how’d they do that’ achievement.
But steam is rapidly lost after the first third, as an extended assassination mission, with Sook-Hee sent along with her handler Hyun-Soo (Jun Sung) to kill gang leader Joong-Sang (Ha-Kyun Shin), puts more focus on romance and mystery. Though there are some sweet moments, emotional beats do not land particularly effectively, and you can’t wait for the original and inventive action of the first act to return. A couple of murders are appropriately grisly, but feel more generic than what’s come before, a let down after Jung raised expectations so high, with a wedding day sniper kill more interesting as individual images than a scene as a whole.
Luckily, the finale brings the adrenaline back, with a brutal shootout transforming into a bus chase before ending on an exhilarating axe fight. Lots of little details bring the environments to life during the fights, actively becoming part of the action instead of being mere backdrops. As standalone action moments, The Villainess’s best scenes are largely unmatched by anything else this year, but as a whole, it doesn’t come together nearly as satisfyingly as you’d like.