Netflix’s ‘Carter’ Makes ‘The Gray Man’ Look Like Child’s Play
There are thousands upon thousands of action movies and yet virtually none deliver the sheer, gonzo pandemonium of Carter, a film of such bravura showmanship that, with each successive set piece, it feels like it’s actively shaming its genre brethren. South Korean director Jung Byung-gil’s prior The Villainess was its own masterpiece of brutality, and from a purely technical standpoint, his latest is so jaw-droppingly impressive that it definitively establishes the auteur as the king of inventive insanity. If you subscribe to Netflix and enjoy having your mind incessantly blown for two-plus hours, this import is for you.
Carter (available now) concerns Carter (Joo Won), an imposing man who wakes up in a motel room with amnesia and a strange cross-like scar at the base of his neck. He’s also in a bed covered in blood and surrounded by a squad of American CIA agents who want to know what he’s done with Dr. Jung (Jung Jae-young), a scientist who was in the hostage video Carter apparently sent to the Yanks. Dr. Jung is of international importance because he’s on the verge of developing a vaccine for a zombie-esque outbreak that’s decimating both North Korea and the United States. Jung’s infected daughter Ha-na (Kim Bo-min) is immune to this viral plague and, thus, the key to remedying it, and Carter—who learns his name from a cryptic voice in his head who turns out to be Han Jung-hee (Jeong So-ri), a North Korean agent—is tasked with retrieving the girl so that North and South Korea can continue their joint effort to end this nightmare.
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Despite that relatively straightforward synopsis, as well as familiar faces in stateside stars Mike Colter and Camilla Belle, Carter is not a narratively lucid tale. Jung and co-writer Jung Byeong-sik’s script dispenses exposition at a rapid-fire clip while keeping the true nature of Carter’s identity, and allegiances, foggy—a tack in line with the film’s desire to remain doggedly affixed to its protagonist’s perspective, and experience, at all times. We’re as bewildered as he is, not to mention as shaken and overwhelmed during the skirmishes that leave him bruised and battered. From leaping out of his motel window, to battling hordes of adversaries in a bathhouse (wearing nothing but a G-string), to racing away from pursuers on a motorcycle, the proceedings get off to a scorching start, all of it captured by Jung’s peerless camera, whose acrobatic dexterity and ingenuity is so off the charts that it deserves a special-achievement Academy Award, if not a Nobel Prize for historic, medium-altering innovation.
Carter flies in, over, under and through cars and trucks at a breakneck pace, zooms around city streets and narrow passageways with zany drone-enabled freedom, and flip-flops between third and first-person POVs with adrenalized verve. Moreover, Jung’s film is constructed as a faux-single-take affair, utilizing a bevy of covert edits to stitch its scenes together into one uninterrupted rollercoaster ride. Those seams do show, just as the director’s copious CGI effects—for green-screen backgrounds, explosions, and ceaseless feats of superhuman might—are transparently phony. So too is the herky-jerky motion of Jung’s camera, which opts not for fluidity but a digitally enhanced lurching/bobbing/whooshing/skyrocketing quality that’s a byproduct of post-production manipulation. The artificiality, however, is purposeful; Jung craves the hyper-realism of video game cutscenes, where the laws of physics (and the limits of traditional cinematography) are discarded in favor of perpetual motion, incessant ultra-violence, and astonishing aesthetic daring.
Carter does so many impossible (human and filmmaking) things that it proves an exercise in pure, unbridled ante-upping flair. Dangling out of planes, trains, taxis and military choppers, Carter is a simultaneously muscular and rubbery man of mayhem defined not by his (blank) personality but by his deeds, which also involve pogo-springing between various biker assailants during a frantic highway chase, tussling with an enemy and trying to save Ha-na while freefalling (sans parachute) from an exploding plane, and ultimately crawling all over a pilot-less helicopter as it performs 360-degree flips and twirls and another angry antagonist tries to blow off his head. A blitzkrieg of fights, shootouts, vehicular pileups and massacres that moves at borderline fast-forward speed and yet periodically dips into slow-motion to provide better views of its carnage, it’s akin to the greatest action-movie acid trip of all time.
It doesn’t matter that Carter is routinely hard to decipher; its lunatic style is its substance. Formal imagination gushes out of its blood-stained pores, such that even its reverential nods to its Hollywood influences—including The Matrix, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and Point Break (to name just three)—play like delirious remixes. Since Carter is being ordered about (i.e. controlled) by the mysterious female in his ear, and given that the particulars of his propulsive mission are less crucial than the thrill of his unremitting showdowns, the film comes across as a live-action PlayStation title brought to blistering life. And if its flourishes don’t make much logistical sense—be it Carter and company defying gravity with every jump, somersault and fall, or Carter (and the audience) spying on a conversation taking place in a distant base via a sniper rifle’s telescope—they’re so inspired and cool that it doesn’t matter.
Though it occasionally pauses to catch its breath (and to spout more convoluted dialogue at harried viewers), Carter is exhausting in the best manner possible, jostling and bludgeoning its way toward ever-crazier scenarios. It must have taken Jung years to choreograph the countless cinematographic and physical maneuvers necessitated by this enterprise, making one crave a comprehensive behind-the-scenes video about the lengths the director went to realize his mad dream. At the same time, however, the magic of this maniacal film is its ability to cop to its own inauthenticity and still amaze by pulling off stunts that don’t seem, on the face of it, feasible with actual flesh-and-blood humans. In other words, I don’t know how the hell he did almost any of it, but I do know that I’ll be watching it again soon.
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