Dir: Kang Woo-suk. South Korea. 2003. 133 mins

If Quentin Tarantino ever gets around to his men on a mission flick, he could do worse than cast an eye over Silmido. Kang woo-suk's muscular tale of Death Row desperados combines brawn and brain to compelling effect. The political complexities of a true story from South Korea's recent past might not resonate with international action audiences but the film should still travel. There's enough Jerry Bruckheimer-style bombast and adrenaline-buzz bloodshed to make this a lad's night out all around the world. Markets that have embraced superior Far East commercial fare like Infernal Affairs or Battle Royale should prove the most receptive to a film that broke box-office records on its home release, taking around $51m and knocking the third Lord Of The Rings film from the top spot.

Carrying echoes of The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Devil's Brigade (1968) and similar American fare of that period, Silmido tells the true story of 31 Death Row convicts recruited for a clandestine government mission in the early months of 1968. Offered the choice between execution or serving their country they choose the latter. Trained as an elite squad, their task is to assassinate leader Kim Il-sung of North Korea and thus accelerate the move towards reunification between North and South.

The first half of the film proceeds in conventional fashion with Rocky-style training montages as the raw recruits are taken to the remote Shilmi island, branded with a fire iron, beaten, tortured, forced underwater and generally treated like contestants in an extreme reality television game show. The rippling torsos, sweating bodies and manic macho male bonding rituals add a homo-erotic charge to the whole proceedings. Director Kang woo-suk keeps the pace as tight and focused as a Sam Fuller B-movie but there are just enough moments of reflection or introspection to vary the mood.

The plot becomes less conventional and more interesting in the second half as the mission is cancelled. Now, the military are left with Special Unit 684, a group of men trained to ruthless perfection who have also bonded with their military commanders. A political embarrassment, their survival is impossible but their slaughter is unthinkable. Issues of loyalty, betrayal and brotherhood dominate before the film veers back to its action roots for an explosive, gung-ho finale.

A polished production, told with great verve, Silmido offers more than mindless mayhem with the moral dilemmas and personal relationships adding weight to the gunplay and bloodshed. Investing considerable screen time in the training allows characters to develop as individuals and encourages the audience to invest in their fate. Ahn Sung-ki brings a gruff humanity to the General assigned to the mission and there is a burning intensity to Seol Gyeong-gu who views the mission as a means of personal revenge against a father who abandoned him and headed to North Korea.

A brutal rape sequence seems surplus to requirements but otherwise this is tense, full throttle genre fare with considerable commercial kick. If you can attract the Bruckheimer audience over the cinema door then they will not be disappointed.

Production co: Cinema Service,Hanmac Films
International sales:
Cinema Service
Executive prods:
Kang Woo-suk, Jonathan Kim
Lee Min-ho
Kim Heui-jae based on the book by Baek Dong-ho
Kim Seong-bok
Go Im-pyo
Production design:
Art Service
Jo Yeong-uk
Main cast: Seol Gyeong-gu, Ahn Sung-ki, Heo Jun-ho, Jeong Jae-yeong, Kang Shin-il, Kang Sung-jin