Carter is the proverbial nonstop action thrill ride that every blockbuster claims to be. When Scorsese compared Marvel favorably to theme park attractions, this is the experience he should have been talking about. Directed by Jung Byung-gil, this action movie stars Joo Won as Carter, a mysterious amnesiac that, depending on who you believe, works for either the CIA or the DPRK military. The main technical gimmicks are the utilization of drones for an artificially endless one-shot and a running clock like High Noon. My first thought when I saw the trailer was of Hardcore Henry, a first-person sci-fi action film also about an amnesiac. Carter is a bit more grounded, despite a zombie-adjacent infection arising out of Korea’s demilitarized zone, spurring the plot as he must rescue and transport a research scientist’s daughter whose blood contains a natural resistance to the infection.
I’ve seen a lot of good movies this year, but Carter is a challenger to Top Gun: Maverick and Everything Everywhere All at Once for “Most Fun.” It’s also easily the most violent and visceral, on par at least with The Northman, but at a higher rate of corpses-per-minute. A few of the coolest action scenes I’ve seen this year are in this film: Carter hacks through a bathhouse mob of Yakuza with their own bladed weapons. Carter creates comedic beats solely through the occasional absurdity and suddenness of its frequently brutal violence. While romances are alluded to, it doesn’t aspire to be romantic, and much to my personal relief, despite the prominence of the DPRK, Carter mostly isn’t anti-communist propaganda.
Regional geopolitics figure into the story in effective but not overbearing ways, through the deployment of tension and cooperation between the DPRK, the Republic of Korea and the U.S. Plus, the CIA look, act and feel similar to Agents from The Matrix, though greater in number, not as unstoppable and largely quiet. They’re generally less inhuman and mostly sans sunglasses, but with the same violent spookiness.
The revelation of deep covers and double-crosses could almost be out of a Bourne film with less exposition; Netflix should push this harder than The Gray Man. They’re both about the CIA chasing a guy, but only one of them has cooperation between the Korean governments to fight a zombie outbreak and a fight across the interior of three vans driving next to each other. Also, while the zombie theme creates urgency through familiar thematic pressure points around a race for a cure, it also made me wonder how Korean filmmakers are so much better right now at utilizing zombies than Americans.
That all brings me back to the cinematography and visual effects working in concert with the fight choreography. There’s an impressively persistent use of drone footage for immersion and fluidity of motion in chase scenes, of which there are several. Carter is a beautiful dance of violence that pauses, but does not stop, for exposition and revelation. I found myself expelling the yelps, laughs and expletives that usually accompany a roller coaster for two nearly-uninterrupted hours. There were parts where it will be clear to the audience, by a slight change of color grade or zoom-focus, that a cut changed us over from drone to handheld camera footage, but these are never jarring enough to be disruptive and are easily forgiven because of the mission they’re in service to. There are also a few times where the CGI used to subtly enable shots in some places becomes more apparent in others. Still, with a movie frequently relying on practical effects (even set against a green screen), the computer seems mainly there to do or enable the stunts that wouldn’t be safe or possible for people to do practically—it’s lobbing assists, not stealing goals.
If I were to hold anything against Carter, it’s that some of the English dialogue, especially in the beginning, isn’t the sharpest. But it’s more rudimentary than remedial. Further, a surprise American star that delighted me in their appearance clearly has a great time chewing scenery when they show up. (The light flickers when they yell in an abandoned mall’s haunted house. This movie is wonderful.) Also, the plot is arguably far-fetched but that and a bit of espionage contrivance isn’t going to scare anyone away. If you don’t like exploding heads, backflipping helicopters, fighting in and on vehicles, or violence generally, I can’t help you. This is an action movie for action fans.
While the mystery required by the premise enables revelations that potentially slow the third act, those revelations also create an emotional character arc, and Carter doesn’t give you any more time to get bored with it than it does to pick apart the plot. Plus, the technology that creates the in-universe situation of missing memory allows for ambiguity that creates an underlying tension around motives. When you’re trying to save a young girl’s life, and keep your country and the world from being overrun by zombies, how much does it matter who sent you? You might not be surprised to see how efficiently a question like that can be answered.
Carter delivers everything it promises and more. At 90 seconds in I was at “eh.” At 20 minutes in, I had to ask myself if this is the greatest film ever made. Carter may not unify the peninsula, but if you want to be entertained, I’ve sure got the film for you.
Director: Jung Byung-gil
Writer: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byeong-sik
Starring: Joo Won, Lee Sung-jae, Jeong So-ri, Kim Bo-min
Release Date: August 5, 2022 (Netflix)
Kevin Fox, Jr. is a freelance writer with an MA in history, who loves videogames, film, TV, and sports, and dreams of liberation. He can be found on Twitter @kevinfoxjr.