At The Movies

Thrillers galore with zombies, immortal renegades and prison-breakers

The zombie spectacular Train To Busan: Peninsula (NC16, 116 minutes, Rating: 3.5 Stars) steams into the station just as Singapore cinemas swing their doors open after being closed for more than three months to curb the spread of Covid-19.

The timing is impeccable - this highly anticipated film will not only be the reopening's centrepiece movie, but it also serves as a test of public feeling about cinemas. If this won't bring them back, nothing will.

The first movie, Train To Busan, holds the record as the highest-grossing South Korean film in Singapore.

Those blockbuster ambitions are revved to the fullest in the tyre-squealing, fender-bending sequel. As in the first movie, the plot here can be summed up as: Go from point A to point B and don't die.

Four years after the events of the first movie, the undead have overrun the Korean peninsula, so it has been abandoned and sealed, with escapees living as despised minorities in other parts of Asia. In Hong Kong, Jung-suk (Gang Dong-won), a bitter ex-soldier who lost everyone he loved during the evacuation, meets with triad bosses, who dangle an offer of a fresh start if he makes a risky raid in his former homeland to retrieve looted cash.

Working with a new cast and new setting, director and co-writer Yeon Sang-ho has extracted the essence of the first movie - a family survival drama - and injected it into the sequel. Despite obvious lifting from action fare such as John Carpenter's Escape From New York (1981) and George Miller's Mad Max movies (in particular, Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, 1985; and Mad Max: Fury Road, 2015), he retains the first film's tender family emotions, which raise the stakes of the mission, making it more than a man versus horde match-up.

Now that everyone in the Train To Busan cinematic universe has guns, explosives and fast cars, Yeon's movie is a bona fide action spectacular.

The first movie's use of real train sets and props made it special, so this film's over-reliance on computer-rendered vehicular mayhem makes it look like a video game. The finale's overcooked tearjerker moment will have most groaning in their seats. Nonetheless, it is clear that the film-maker has another winner on his hands.

Charlize Theron was the star of Mad Max: Fury Road, one of Peninsula's inspirations, and she now stars in The Old Guard (R21, 125 minutes, Netflix, Rating: 3 Stars) a fantasy-action movie in which she plays Andy, the leader of a group of immortal mercenaries who take jobs that agree with her instinct-driven moral code.

In other words, the story, adapted from a graphic novel, has roots in any franchise built on a group of outcast do-gooders with special powers. Where this departs from the template is in its forthright social justice stance. The X-Men films (2000 to 2019), for example, were allusive, hinting at how its mutant heroes are vilified in the same way as, say, gay persons or civil rights activists. The Old Guard goes there: The crew are explicitly pro-gay (note the R21 rating), pro-women's rights and anti-slave trafficking.

Director Gina Prince-Blythewood slipstreams prosocial themes into the story-driven violence so smoothly almost no preachiness can be detected.

In The Old Guard, Charlize Theron plays Andy, the leader of a group of immortal mercenaries. PHOTO: NETFLIX

But it suffers from the fatigue-inducing cinematic crime of "ethical" violence.

In some films, hordes of easy-to-kill androids are mowed down. Here, endless ranks of anonymous black-clad soldiers fall bloodlessly, over and over. Despite that, this is mostly a good attempt at an action movie that wears its values on its bullet-riddled sleeve.

Escape From Pretoria (PG, 116 minutes, Rating: 3 Stars) is another values-driven movie, but in the biographical prison-escape genre. Based on the book by Tim Jenkin, played here by Daniel Radcliffe, it tells the true story of Jenkin and Stephen Lee (Daniel Webber), two political prisoners housed in the whites-only wing of Pretoria Central Prison. In 1970s apartheid-era South Africa, even prisons were segregated.

At heart, this is a procedural thriller that creates tension from the duo's schemes and resulting pay-offs. The big scheme, of course, is to break out.

Director and co-writer Francis Annan breaks down each step to create well-paced suspense. That caper is skilfully set against a prison environment shaped by racist policy, shown here to be a ladder climbed most easily by the cruel and manipulative.

Another biopic running this week is Mr Jones (M18, 119 minutes), a diary of young journalist Gareth Jones (James Norton) who travelled to the Soviet Union in 1933. At the time, reports of the economic miracle wrought by strongman Joseph Stalin left intellectuals in the West dazzled, but Jones is witness to the horrifying truth.

Other films screening this week include Low Season (PG13, 125 minutes), a Thai supernatural romantic comedy about Lin (Ploypailin Thangprapaporna), a woman whose ability to see spirits intrigues screenwriter Put (Mario Maurer) while both are at a resort.

Taiwanese horror work The Bridge Curse (NC16, 88 minutes) concerns a creepy bridge wreathed in legends of suicide and disappearances. Journalist Shu-yu (Summer Meng) decides that she will unearth the truth.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 16, 2020, with the headline Thrillers galore with zombies, immortal renegades and prison-breakers. Subscribe