South Korea have been making some of my favourite disaster movies of the last decade. One of the areas that hadn’t tackled yet was a volcano and Ashfall looks on the surface to put that to rights. Whilst a volcano is absolutely present throughout, it is a plot driver for a military mission with guns and double crosses which relegates the volcano to the background. There is fun to be had but I came in expecting more natural disaster than I was given.
The disasters faced
A volcano and the earthquake and tsunami it brings with it, army shoot outs, micro tracking chips, nuclear explosions, expert level driver obstacle courses and possibly the longest elevator drop in disaster movie history.
Jo and Choi are a couple expecting their first baby. Lee works for the military and is immediately caught up downtown when a volcano on the Baekdu Mountain range springs into life. It is classed as a cataclysmic event, with the possibility of wiping Korea and surrounding countries off the map by the time its finished erupting. Taking cues from 2012, Jo drives between every city building as it collapses around them. However, his nightmare is just beginning.
Jo is asked to head a team of soldiers to lead a mission to steal some nuclear warheads and throw them into the base of the volcano to shut it up. This questionable science is made possible from duo Kang and Jeon who aren’t quite sure if the plan will work. They also aren’t sure exactly where should be best, much to the annoyance of Sergeant Min. En route, they also need to find and release Lee Byung-Hun – an outlaw with a chip in his head. My poorly subtitled version of the film may have missed exactly why he is required. I think it is because he is combat experienced and knows his way around a nuke. As you do…
Lee, Jo and their band of soldiers make their way to the nukes and get them but are intercepted on the way to the volcano. You see, Kang and Jeon’s ‘lets throw a nuke at it’ plan sounds utterly nuts to America. US General Michael orders that they take out the team anyway possible. Not only do the team now need to survive the tremors and drama of the volcano, they’ll be shot at by the US seals all the way there. This thins out most of the supporting cast leaving just Lee, Jo and fellow soldier Min left as Commander Philips and his gang takes almost everyone else out.
Meanwhile the heavily pregnant Choi has had enough of being left on her own and decides to leave town as part of the mass evacuation of South Korea. In doing so, she gets caught up in a tsunami on a large bridge and is washed into the sea. From there she gets on a bus heading for the boats leaving the country and ends up sitting next to Kang, who having learned of America’s plans to kill the Korean team has seemingly given up and decided to leave himself fearing for his life. As the two end up getting caught in a crowd control problem at a passport control boarder, they learn of each other’s connection to Jo and realise that they could actually be more helpful. Together with Jeon, they organise a mission to steal some vital information and then relay it to Jo, hoping he is still alive and can then place the nuke in the right place.
Jo has enough problems of his own without all of this. Lee cannot be trusted and the two keep trying to one up each other for control of the nuke but also need to work together to evade Commander Philips. Will they be able to work together to deliver the nuke? Will it even work anyway? Who is going to shoot who?! Only one way to find out…
Why is it worth watching?
Ashfall is an intense movie. South Korean movies often have a lot of emotions going on but Ashfall has lots of moving parts to it. I imported a German version of the movie and had to wrestle with slightly out of time subtitles imported in English (the movie isn’t available in English) and I’m sure I lost some of the subtext. Everyone is tense and its because of the political pressure as well as the ‘do I die by gunfight or volcano’ choice hanging over everyone’s head.
That being said, Ashfall is a little confusing in understanding who is the good or bad guy. This also has issues tonally too. Some of the soldier gunfights are zappy and brutal. Then you have a near comedy Rush Hour styled slow motion ‘Noooooo’ from our two main leads as they launch a giant 4×4 over a cliff and into a forest. They then proceed to wrestle around like a late 80’s Arnie movie before then agreeing to disagree. Part of the fun comes from the fact Jo ate their map so Lee cannot kill him, but then Lee doesn’t seem able to complete the mission without Jo either. I must admit, I was amused and confused in equal measure.
The eruption of Baekdu is never really centre stage but it does cause some fantastic set pieces. The best of these is straight out of the gate with the earthquake bringing down the city. The tsunami is fun if too brief, as is the final drive to the mountain whilst avoiding lava bombs. I’d go as far as saying this is an action film with disaster movie elements rather than it being a disaster movie with action elements. That might appeal more to some and less to others on that basis.
Acting wise, the movie is really well put together. Sometimes when Korean and American actors share a screen, it can lead to some stilted exchanges but not here. Ashfall is one of the best examples of a real integration of mixed languages. That also makes it all the more confusing as to why the film is only available in German in Europe and Korean elsewhere.
Whilst there is a bit of cartoonish colouring in places, Ashfall does ash clouds extremely well. The way debris clouds pour out of collapsed buildings is superb and the city destruction is really well done. The cartoon elements usually come from the car moments where the car feels like it isn’t part of the rest of the screen – like its too bright and clean compared to the grit of the world around it. It is a small point of critique though – the effects here are generally excellent. Even those car chase moments get better as the night time one on the collapsing bridge looks great.
Most of the characters in Ashfall are quite cookie cutter. Jo is reserved but calculating. It is funny as he plays a similar character in the fantastic Tunnel too. Kang is a science nerd wuss. Jeon is cool under pressure. Choi is the damsel in distress but doesn’t get to be in distress too much. You do know that baby is going to pop out at some point though so she is a ticking time bomb. Min is kick ass. Everyone else is reduced to simple shouts or story segments. All except for the crazy unhinged Lee Joon-Pyeong.
Lee is a large part of why the movie works. From his introduction he is painted as a ruthless man but he is also extremely troubled too. His wife is mess, his daughter estranged – he himself is chipped to be tracked. He has nothing to lose and so when he goes off on a crazed manner, you aren’t sure exactly what he is going to do. He wants to escape the whole mission but also doesn’t want to see South Korea burn. It is a delicate balance that actor Lee Byung-Hun delivers excellently.
The bastard said that?!
Its a she.
….Choi calling Jo out on his assumptions
Three memorable moments
- The opening Earthquake is pretty spectacular.
- Lee and Jo having at it in the 4×4 as the movie goes 80’s action hero stupid for 15 minutes.
- The strange ‘lets the grab nuke’ split screen montage straight out of a comic book.
The obligatory weird moment
It is less of a weird moment and more of an observation that so many of the cast get shot and yet continue on happily regardless. Lee in particular seems to be made of superhuman strength. I also found it refreshing to see Americans portrayed as the baddies for once, although throwing a nuke at a volcano doesn’t sound like a sound idea to me either…
The drinking game
Take a chug every time Lee and Jo take pot shots at each other. Its a love hate hate relationship that could turn into a Lethal Weapon mocumentary at any moment. If only they’d stop trying to knock each other out.
Whilst I was disappointed that the volcano is more of a plot device than the actual main event, Ashfall is still good fun. Mixing in disaster movie elements to an army mission in a very ash laden set, I was entertained throughout. You’ll need to suspend some disbelief at just how much HP these characters have but you can’t ever say you’ll be bored. It feels like a lot of these Sci-Fi movies that have zero budget where an army mission takes place to save the world. In those movies, you watch it on screens from inside a control room. With Ashfall, you get to experience it all with a big budget.
If you love mission based action movies, I’d say bump the score up a point. I might be salty.
Rating: 3 / 5 (Good)
If you enjoyed Ashfall / Baekdusan, then you may like…
- Greenland – This film also deals with terrible border control and an extinction event.
- The Tower – Still my favourite South Korean disaster movie of all time. Plenty to enjoy.
- Pompeii – Probably the most visually stunning volcano based disaster movie. Just with a lot of historical love drama and gladiatorial testosterone thrown in for good measure!
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