Choi Jae-Hoon’s The Killer has it all: a missing young girl, a man who outgrows him, and a conspiracy that goes all the way up. If this sounds familiar, that’s because Choi’s film, while packed with slick action, draws on familiar tropes from gritty thrillers of the past to make too big a name for itself.

In “The Killer,” Jang Hyuk (Chois “The Swordsman”) plays the titular killer Bang Ui-gang, a semi-retired hitman who is eager to hook up with his wife (Lee Chae-young) in the home renovation business. She leaves him for an all-too-normal girls’ weekend and puts him in charge of her friend’s stepdaughter, Kim Yoon-ji (Lee Seo-young), a 17-year-old girl with a headstrong streak.

Ui-gang and Seo-young make an odd couple: he’s a childless man in his forties with a strict, abiding sense of law and order, and she’s a teenager looking for a good time. But Seo-young’s wild streak gets her into trouble, and before he knows it, Ui-gang is looking for her across town to get her back from the pushy gangsters.

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If the plot sounds a bit convoluted (how many people have the task of looking after their significant other’s friend’s almost-grown child that they’ve never met before?), then the plot that follows proves just as brain-cracking, if not entertaining feel, full of twists and turns that add plenty of suspense provided you don’t overthink it. Based on the popular 2018 novel by Bang Jin-Ho (originally titled The Girl Deserves To Die), The Killer constantly focuses on Ui-gang, who is just as clueless, if not determined, to kill the Survive events of the film as an audience.

Luckily, and perhaps where it matters most, the action in The Killer is pretty gory. Jang is a confident, competent lead, slick and entertaining to watch, however gruff he may seem to his peers and opponents. Choi stages the action as unforgiving and gory hand-to-hand combat, never quite letting the viewer forget that what is happening is violent and has a very human cost. The neon-colored interiors and narrow hallways make for a killer playground, and everything from guns to axes counts as a weapon. Jang is famous for choreographing his own fight scenes, and indeed, with any other star at the helm, The Killer would feel drab, if not far less vibrant.

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Here, too, the cinematography is surprising, the camera pans and jumps with its own kind of choreography. More importantly, the action sequences are fun, full of personality, and creative (if not a little gruesome) kills. Though The Killer is intended to place itself within a genre, it’s often at its best when it defies those tropes rather than smooth, dramatic action.

The last few years have seen a slew of revenge action thrillers, many (if not most) of which revolve around a missing girl. Whether she is the protagonist’s wife, daughter or the daughter of a friend, the trope revolves around exhaustion. It would be one thing if Yoon-ji felt more distinctive in the film, but she’s difficult to pin down, conflicted in her desires, and only seen on screen when it fits.

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In fact, The Killer slows down when it comes to Yoon-ji’s problem. Ui-gang isn’t very interested in getting to know her, and the audience doesn’t get to either. Most of the women in the film are either helpless saints or cruel deviants, neither of whom has long screen time or legitimate development.

If only The Killer consisted of more action, otherwise Choi’s film feels trapped in the who-what-when-where of it all. The first act of The Killer is so intent on explaining and restating its premise that it’s easy to forget what kind of movie it’s supposed to be when the plot kicks in. But as Jang kicks, punches and shoots his way through mansions and warehouses full of gangsters, there’s an unprecedented vibrancy that makes it hard not to yearn for a sharper, or at least less complicated, script. When it comes to a tale we know well—the damsel in distress, her knight in bloody armor—break the mythology and get down to murder.

The Killer opens in US theaters on July 13.

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