Editor’s Notes: Assassination, Fear of the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season, & Downhill Racer are out on their respective formats December 1st.
Assassination (Well Go USA) is a drama set in Japanese-occupied Korea during the 1930s. When an agent from the provisional government (Lee Jung-jae) determines to assassinate both an army commander and a national traitor, he enlists the help of three exiled rebels: a sniper in the Korea independence army (Gianna Jun), an imprisoned military school graduate (Cho Jin-woong), and an explosives expert (Choi Deok-moon). When the Japanese Consulate in Shanghai learns about the intended assassination, they dispatch contract killer Hawaii Pistol (Ha Jung-woo) to stop them.
The film is overly complex, with too many characters and subplots, a serpentine script, and three different time periods. It’s often difficult to keep track of where and when action takes place. More an action flick than a deep exploration of the Japanese occupation of Korea during the 1930s, Assassination is at its best with some effectively staged action set pieces and a smattering of comic relief. The film has problems tying things together, and the ending seems awkwardly strained.
Director Choi Dong-hoon has fashioned a decent escapist movie. There isn’t much depth of characterization, but production values are first-rate. At 140 minutes, however, the movie is overstuffed and could stand some prudent editing. There are no bonus features on the Blu-ray release.
Fear of the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season
Fear of the Walking Dead: The Complete First Season (Anchor Bay) is not a spinoff but a companion series to AMC’s huge hit, The Walking Dead. In “Fear…” we see how the zombie apocalypse began. As “Fear” begins, we meet Madison Clark (Kim Dickens), a guidance counselor at an East Los Angeles high school. She and English teacher Travis Manawa (Cliff Curtis) are in love. But all is not rosy. Madison has two children, college-age Nick (Frank Dilane), a heroin addict, and Alicia (Alycia Debnam-Carey), who’s finishing high school and is on a path to a bright future at college.
The pace of the series is much slower than The Walking Dead. There’s considerable emphasis on the characters, which unfortunately comes very close to soap opera. We see the effects of paranoia caused by the zombie outbreak. There are some walkers, which are referred to as the “infected.” Early episodes set the groundwork for frightening times to come. There’s an unexplained upsurge in student absences, the populace doesn’t know what to make of bloody mouthed walkers, and protests are directed at the police for not removing bodies from the streets. The cumulative effect of these scenes is to create an atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty.
The first half of Season One takes place in the quiet suburbs as community dread mounts. The populace is learning how to deal with the threat and have to struggle to take down even a single walker. This contrasts to the militaristic tone that the flagship series has taken, and is a major contrast to the original. Unfortunately, pace suffers for those who like their zombies plentiful, gory, and dedicated to one thing only — cannibalizing humans. Whether spinoff, companion piece or pale copy, Fear of the Walking Dead needs a shot of energy. Many of the episodes are padded, overly talky, and frankly dull. The writing has to improve if the show is to have a life beyond a season or two. A show about zombies should have more zombies, even if they don’t yet dominate the stories. Viewers of a show like this enjoy strong characters, but don’t want them hogging screen time from the real stars — the walkers.
Bonus features on the 2-disc Blu-ray edition include behind-the-scenes looks at the series itself and its cast of characters.
Downhill Racer (The Criterion Collection), a scripted film shot in documentary style, is a look at the glamor of international ski racing. Robert Redford stars as David Chappellet, a ruthlessly ambitious skier competing for Olympic gold with an underdog American team in Europe. Gene Hackman (The French Connection), in a supporting role, plays Coach Claire, who tries to temper Chappellet’s narcissistic drive for glory.
With a screenplay by James Salter, Downhill Racer is a vivid character study enriched by some breathtakingly beautiful cinematography. It marks the feature debut of director Michael Ritchie, who would go on to direct Prime Cut, The Candidate (also with Redford), Smile and Fletch, among others.
This is the first feature film Robert Redford developed for himself, and he did much of the skiing. The downhill runs are filmed and edited in such a way that the viewer feels the rush of the sport. Several shots are from the point of view of the skier. Redford’s Chappellet is arrogant, handsome, self-assured, and highly competitive — all qualities that help him rise in the sport. His character never seems a romanticized version of a skier. The movie also takes us behind the scenes of the industry behind the sport. Raising money for the national team is top priority even as the team travels from one contest to another.
The contrast between Chappellet and Claire provides the film’s primary dramatic conflict. Though Claire is turned off by Chappellet’s attitude, he knows that the skier’s ambition is the team’s single best chance for victory. There’s also a romantic subplot that simply can’t compete with the film’s terrific action sequences.
Bonus content on the restored high-definition digital transfer Blu-ray edition includes interviews from 2009 with Robert Redford, screenwriter James Salter, and former downhill skier Joe Jay Jalbert, who served as a technical adviser, ski double, and camera operator; audio excerpts from a 1977 American Film Institute seminar with director Michael Ritchie; How Fast?, a 12-minute promotional featurette from 1969; and a critical essay.