Dev Patel says watch more Korean action movies — here are 5 bangers

The hot ticket for fans of cinematic thrills this April is Monkey Man, the first directorial effort from acclaimed actor Dev Patel. The marketing for the film promises exquisitely captured and well-crafted beatdowns in service of an emotionally relatable tale of avenging familial loss. Its other selling point has been the novelty of seeing Patel, an actor who has never been viewed as an “action star” by the public at large despite being an accomplished taekwondo practitioner, stepping into that role on screen for the first time.

In the lead-up to the film’s release, a clip from a PR event at the SXSW festival involving Patel went viral on social media. There, the interviewer asked him how he felt about Monkey Man being referred to as “the South Asian John Wick.” Patel, while being extremely complimentary of the Wick series and the creatives behind it, was quick to downplay that comparison and point out that a bigger source of inspiration for his film was the genre cinema of South Korea. He not only stated that those films “changed [his] life” but was cheerfully emphatic that “you’ve got to watch some Korean movies!”

To help with that, here is a list of five South Korean action films available to stream, rental-free, that pair perfectly with Monkey Man. If you’re looking for something else to watch this spring, this collection of films will get you ready for a trip to the theater and help you keep the vibe going after you’ve checked out Patel’s hard-hitting action debut!


The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil

Image: Kiwi Media Group

Where to watch: Peacock, Hi-Yah!, Viki, free with a library card on Kanopy, and free with ads on FreeVee, Pluto TV, and Plex

Where to begin exploring another country’s film scene can be a daunting question. A good starting point should be one that gives a general idea of what to expect when watching those particular films. With that thought in mind, an excellent jumping-on point for South Korean action films is 2019’s The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil. There are undoubtedly more critically acclaimed and influential films in that genre, but this propulsive thriller about a policeman competing with a vengeance-seeking crime boss to see who can be the first to catch a serial killer is one that includes a lot of different elements common to films from the region: a gritty urban setting, cynical storytelling, morally ambiguous heroes, serial killers, gangland brawls, and graphic violence.

Another thing The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil possesses is the presence of one of South Korea’s most iconic actors, Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee). The burly action star has gotten some Hollywood exposure with a supporting role in Marvel’s Eternals. Its big-budget CGI-heavy spectacle only gave a small glimpse of Ma’s unique mix of unassuming charm and bone-rattling physicality. Here, all the charisma and action chops that made him a cult favorite among movie fans in the West (and a massive box-office draw in his own country) are on full display as he barrels through the film like a beefy freight train.

With a pending Hollywood remake of the film on the horizon where Ma is expected to reprise his role as the crime boss, possibly opposite Sylvester Stallone, now is an excellent time to check this one out to get acquainted with Ma and South Korean films in general.

The Man from Nowhere

Won Bin, wearing a black collared shirt, holds a gun next to his head while deep in thought in The Man From Nowhere. Image: Well Go Entertainment USA

Where to watch: Netflix, Peacock, Mubi, Viki, Hi-Yah!, free with a library card on Hoopla and Kanopy, or free with ads on Pluto TV

The comparison of Patel’s debut directorial effort to the John Wick franchise is a familiar refrain to knowledgeable film enthusiasts. Because of Wick’s immense popularity, it is the go-to reference for many when it comes to cutting-edge modern action. Seeing the promotional materials for Monkey Man, with Patel looking immaculate in a suit as he stylishly (and savagely) dispatches bad guys, it’s understandable to think of Keanu Reeves doing similar things as John Wick. But this specific action vibe didn’t originate there. The Wick franchise stands on the shoulders of countless films that came before it. While many will see the well-tailored beatdowns of Monkey Man and recreate the “Leonardo DiCaprio pointing” meme while exclaiming “John Wick!” — it would be more fitting to shout “The Man from Nowhere!”

This 2010 actioner about a pawn dealer with a mysterious, violent past who springs into action after his neighbors are abducted by an organ-harvesting criminal enterprise could reasonably be labeled a Rosetta stone to understanding the visual style of the first John Wick. Chad Stahelski, the main guiding force behind John Wick, stated in a 2014 Reddit AMA that The Man from Nowhere was one of the reference points in establishing the tone and style of the first Wick movie. When you see Won Bin’s protagonist stoically suit up and check his automatic pistol one-handed before shooting and stabbing his way through the back end of the film to save an innocent life, it’s easy to see how The Man from Nowhere set off a chain reaction of stylistically similar films all over the world that is still being felt 14 years later with the release of Monkey Man.

The Villainess

Three motorcycle riders fight with swords in a chaotic scene from The Villainess Image: Well Go USA Entertainment

Where to watch: Prime Video, Peacock, HI-Yah!, for free with a library card on Hoopla, for free with ads on FreeVee and Pluto TV

General tone and visual style are not the only things the John Wick creative team has pulled from South Korean action films. A few of their lifts have been much more overt. For example, one of the direct homages the series contains happens in the third entry, John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. There, Keanu Reeves engages in a frantic sword duel with numerous assailants, all while racing down the highway on motorcycles. The sequence is a breathtaking bit of action design and special effects magic. It is also nearly wholesale taken from a film that came out two years prior: 2017’s The Villainess.

This ultra-slick slice of South Korean action is built upon a twist-filled plot concerning a female assassin whose desire for personal vengeance is continually manipulated by various shadowy forces to use her, unwittingly, as a tool of destruction. The labyrinthian, flashback-filled narrative is secondary to the incredibly inventive action work on display. The Villainess opens with an immersive first-person melee through a dilapidated multi-story building that progresses through multiple floors before the camera gracefully pulls back to show what, at first, appears to be a more traditional viewpoint of the setting. At this point, the camera instantly becomes a dynamic participant in the on-screen fighting as it moves in and around the participants at a frantic pace, grabbing the key moments of each devastating blow while making the viewer feel like they are barely avoiding getting struck by the chaos happening all around them. This same wild energy is present throughout every action scene in the film, including the motorcycle-assisted sword battle so beloved by the makers of John Wick.

The action in The Villainess is a perfect example of the boundary-pushing stylistic choices that have led many directors, like Dev Patel, to look to South Korean cinema for inspiration in their own genre filmmaking.

The Killer (2022)

In The Killer: A Girl Who Deserves to Die, Jang Hyuk holds a pistol at a slight angle, with blood all around him. Image: Shaw Entertainment Group

Where to watch: Prime Video and for free with ads on Plex, Tubi, and Vudu

In Patel’s full response to that media question, along with imploring people to look into the films of South Korea, he name-checked international action legends like Sammo Hung and Jet Li. He also mentioned his love of Northern India’s Bollywood scene as well, explaining that all of those things fed into the creation of Monkey Man. What he was trying to convey is that action is a universal language and inspiration is not a one-way street; it comes from all directions.

That philosophy is front and center in 2022’s The Killer (also known as The Killer: A Girl Who Deserves to Die), an action romp with the barest of plots about a retired hitman who has to rescue a family friend and is more than a little annoyed about it. That simple setup allows for a constant barrage of familiar, but interesting, action tropes and beats remixed into something that feels fresh and, most importantly, fun. Genre die-hards will have a blast catching nods to action luminaries like John Woo and Jackie Chan as well as cult-classic films The Raid and Equilibrium. Less savvy action fans who may not catch every wink and tribute will still marvel at impeccable action sequences like a lengthy hallway brawl that is shot in a continuous take that sees the main character use various weapons to fight his way through a seemingly never-ending stream of henchmen.

The Killer is a great reminder that references and homages don’t define a film’s worth for good or bad. How those influences are used is what truly matters.

Ballerina

Jun Jong-seo holds a silenced pistol at a man’s face in Ballerina Photo: Yoo Eun Mi/Netflix

Where to watch: Netflix

Monkey Man producer Jordan Peele, in a video promoting the film’s release, commented that one of the things that attracted him to the project was the underlying theme of simple revenge growing into avengement of a larger injustice. This is an element of many South Korean action films, a shining example of which is 2023’s Ballerina.

When her only friend is driven to suicide after suffering the abuse of a perverted, small-time gangster, a high-level former bodyguard embarks on a quest of deeply personal vengeance across a neon-lit landscape of nightclubs, back alleys, and seedy hotels to find the lowlife responsible. Her search quickly turns violent and escalates into an all-out confrontation with the entire criminal organization that employs and enables the target of her well-deserved fury. The ensuing conflict culminates in a chaotic, expertly choreographed, one-against-many brawl full of all the gunplay and martial arts action fans could hope for, capped off with an outlandish, pitch-black final act of retribution that works as a perfect, brutal exclamation point on the proceedings.

Despite the large amount of bloody mayhem, the tone throughout is decidedly melancholic and thoughtful. That approach, coupled with imagery that delicately shifts from ethereal beauty to nightmarishly bleak, leaves Ballerina as a gorgeously haunting piece of action cinema.

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