Gon (Jang Dong-gun) is a hitman for the Korean Triads and has no qualms about killing anyone his bosses tell him to. But tonight that is all about to change; he sits in a nightclub restaurant and a little girl catches his eye, so he goofs around for her to make her laugh. Then duty calls, and he is brought into a back room to meet with his boss's rivals, a meeting that ends with him quick-drawing his pistol and laying waste to the office, murdering everyone there. Aware that the commotion may have attracted attention, he hears a noise beyond the door and lets a few rounds off at it - but on opening it, he is horrified to discover that same little girl was investigating the sound, to her peril.
Not many films would start with the murder of a child, even in action thrillers looking for an impetus for their plots it can be taboo, but that was the way South Korean director Lee Jeong-beom opted to kick things off in No Tears for the Dead, a title that appeared to be ironic and undercutting the macho culture that results in so many dead bodies in the first place. This was his third film, following on from his international hit The Man from Nowhere, but while there were those who were more than satisfied with what he conjured up, the consensus seemed to be that he had failed to entirely live up to the promise of what had gone before, no matter how accomplished this was in parts.
There was no getting around it, the death of the little girl was simply too miserable an event to get over, and while there was a sense of catharsis in action flicks that the world was being set to rights through violence on the right side of morality, here Gon's remorse at what may have been accidental, but is difficult for anyone to recover from, did not make for an enjoyable experience. That was especially notable when he spent the first half of the movie moping around in a state of shock, and not even the job he was given by the big boss man to right a wrong he didn’t believe really needed that form of terminal treatment was going to lift our anti-hero out of his dejection.
There was a big reason for that, and it was the job took the form of seeking out the mother of the dead girl and, no, not making amends, but shooting the poor woman. There was a McGuffin she had in her possession that would jeopardise the Triads' business opportunities, and therefore she had to be murdered thanks to that rather than being a bereaved parent, but somehow - and this is a real stretch - Gon's overseers believe bumping her off will make him feel a lot better and be back at the top of his game in no time. The mother was Choi Mo-kyeong (Kim Min-hee), who works in the financial district, and she is understandably very upset about her daughter too, far more justifiably than Gon is you would have to say. If he was that bereft over what he had done, you're tempted to think he should have turned himself in.
But if he did that there would be no second half where Lee delivered the bullet ballet we anticipated. Therefore after far too long a wait, No Tears for the Dead transformed from a very sorry for itself wallow in grief into what was more or less Die Hard in Korea, Gon having travelled across the Pacific from his American bosses to his homeland to carry out the hit (again, far-fetched - would it not be more economical to hire a hitman who was already there in that foreign country?). The action in that second hour was impressive, Lee knew what he was doing in that respect, it's just that his story was far too maudlin to bear the weight of what should have been a thrill ride, spending too long weeping over a tragedy and then expecting us to perk up when we were offered the kinetic business we had signed up for. There was skill in this, there was no denying that, but it was hard to enjoy in the form we were served it up, better suited to a dense drama than the shoot 'em up it became. Music by Choi Yong-rock.