By KEN MICHAELS
Starring Gang Dong-won, Lee Jung-hyun and Lee Re
Directed by Yeon Sang-ho
Written by Yeon Sang-ho and Ryu Yong-jae
Well Go USA
Man, this one hurts. When TRAIN TO BUSAN opened in 2016, it was the best thing to happen to the zombie genre in ages, with writer/director Yeon Sang-ho finding a way to merge the best of the old and new approaches to the undead. The setting was a brilliant gambit: fast-moving yet confined, allowing for both claustrophobic terror and blistering action, with infected ghouls as fast as any seen on screen yet especially dangerous when confined in with the passengers. The characters were great, too, revealing Yeon to be as sensitive to grabbing and holding your emotions as he was to knocking you out with his mayhem and grossing you out with the gore. It was perfect, really.
So what went wrong? PENINSULA, set in the world of TRAIN TO BUSAN but containing none of its characters, was once again directed by Yeon from a script he wrote with Ryu Yong-jae, but contains little of the distinctive personality, energy or narrative of its predecessor. Instead, it’s a grab bag of borrowed tropes from George A. Romero’s DEAD saga (most notably DAY and LAND) and the MAD MAX movies, and the harrowing physicality of TRAIN TO BUSAN has been replaced with weightless CGI.
And it starts so well, too, taking us back to the ravaged South Korea as soldier Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) attempts to help his sister’s family escape the country. After making a moral decision that will haunt him later (yet doesn’t generate the drama it should), they wind up on a ship bound for Japan that gets rerouted to Hong Kong and has some bloody trouble along the way. These early scenes are taut, uncompromising and briefly recapture the spirit of the original. We then jump four years ahead: Upsetting some of the movie’s metaphorical possibilities, South Korea has been successfully quarantined and the zombie virus contained (exposition is delivered on a TV by Screen Anarchy’s Pierce Conran!), though Jung-seok, his brother-in-law Chul-min (Kim Do-yoon) and other escapees are treated with derision by the HK locals. Unable to even achieve official refugee status, Jung-seok and Chul-min reluctantly accept an offer to join a mercenary mission back into South Korea, where $20 million U.S. is sitting in an abandoned armored truck, just waiting for anyone brave and heavily armed enough to come get it.
Since the zombies are blind at night, a quick nocturnal in-and-out mission to grab the cash ought to be a piece of cake, right? Well, we all know what happens to the best-laid plans of gun-toting adventurers in dystopian environments–and filmmakers attempting to recapture previous glories. There’s an eerie moment as the group passes the destroyed Incheon Bridge, and then we’re plunged into ruined city streets, a gloomy color scheme and a scavenger culture we’ve all seen so many times before. The emphasis shifts from fighting with/fleeing from the blood-craving infected (who almost become incidental to the story after a while) to car chases in which the vehicles are so obviously digital that there’s no way to become caught up in the action. Despite a major bump in budget from the previous movie to this one, there are numerous times when PENINSULA suggests less a true sequel to TRAIN TO BUSAN than a video-game spinoff, and while Yeon does come up with one neat gimmick–drivers “drifting” to run down whole swaths of zombies at once–it’s repeated to the point where it loses its novelty and impact.
Just as dispiriting is the lack of inspiration when it comes to the film’s people. Yeon’s point throughout PENINSULA is that the uninfected humans are the real monsters, which is hardly a stop-the-presses idea, and is expressed in overly familiar ways. Our heroes discover the devastated Incheon ruled, as much as it can be, by a gang of rogue soldiers led by Sgt. Hwang (Kim Min-jae), who is supposed to be the key tyrannical threat but is, to put it bluntly, no Captain Rhodes from DAY OF THE DEAD. The influence then becomes LAND as Hwang’s captives are thrown into a shopping center turned gladiatorial pit, where they are forced to confront a horde of the ghouls. Meanwhile, Captain Seo (Koo Kyo-hwan) and Private Kim (Kim Kyu-baek) scheme to get their hands on the $20 million and get out of Dodge, while Jung-seok falls in with Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) and her family, including cute little Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won), who’s a wiz with a remote-control car that’s handy while evading the zombies.
Watching Yu-jin act like a kid in a movie, as opposed to the heartbreakingly real performance by Kim Su-an as the protagonist’s daughter in TRAIN TO BUSAN, points to the problems with PENINSULA. As you can tell from that synopsis, this sequel lacks the ruthless focus the original maintained even with its large ensemble, and feels mechanical instead of surprising. There are moments along the way (particularly a great physical gag at the climax) that briefly recall the thrills and astonishment Yeon delivered on his trip toward Busan, but way too much of PENINSULA has the sense of the filmmaker spinning his wheels, figuratively and literally. And for those of us who have been with him since his take-no-prisoners animated feature THE KING OF PIGS (2011), the lack of any fresh or pointed subtext here, even in a movie conceived before COVID, is especially disappointing.