Cold Eyes is the Korean remake of the popular Hong Kong cops-and-robbers thriller Eye in the Sky from 2007. Although it is harsher and quicker paced, comparisons between the two versions are inevitable, as the remake offers many resemblances to the original version, with quite a few scenes reshot only slightly differently (and not to mention a Simon Yam cameo appearance).
The story follows an elite police taskforce in Seoul which uses surveillance and undercover tactics as its modus operandi to nab the bad guys. Top on their list is a group who has just carried out a high-profile armed bank robbery, its execution planned meticulously down to the second by James, the mastermind and leader of the gang who watches (with binoculars) from his vantage point atop a nearby building, monitoring the heist. James cuts such a cold and hulking figure that from the moment he came into view, we instinctively knew that he would portray the ultimate cold-blooded villain. The original role of Chan Chong San, played by the veteran Hong Kong actor Tony Leung Ka-Fai (typecast into playing mobsters in one way or another in the last few years) was a mouthy, conniving mid-level gang boss with motives, a backstory and problems of his own — juggling between keeping his gang in check and negotiating a bigger cut off of the loot from the top of the food chain.
In contrast, James comes off as being much less three-dimensional. Played by the tall and muscular Jung Woo-sung, James is a man of few words (and what appears to be only one facial expression). He is as formidable a fighter as he is ruthless leader, one who tolerates zero dissension from his crew, something he makes clear by way of brutal punishment. He possesses precise planning skills and once a job commences, he stops at nothing until it gets done. One gets the feeling that he takes no joy in the work he does, as he observes his surroundings with cold detachment — in fact, I think the film’s title may be referring to him rather than the surveillance cameras.
The only glimpse we get of a reason for this pathological behavior are the few scenes with his Kkangpae boss father, who seems to harbor unhealthy doses of paternal rivalry and possession towards his son. Oozing top dog, underworld malevolence, the older man practically snarls through his sentences as he hands James new jobs, while making it clear that even a son is not beyond indispensability should the father’s wishes not be obeyed. This relationship arc is loosely based on Chan Chong San’s aspirations in the original film to branch out on his own, severing ties with the godfather. The only obvious feature linking these two versions of the protagonist that is retained in Cold Eyes is James’ interest in Sudoku as a pastime, which is cleverly made use of and woven into a key scene in the remake.
Juxtaposed against the criminals’ mean and soulless operations is the familial, nurturing environment of police Chief Hwang (Kyung-gu Sol) and his surveillance team. Hwang’s head of the team character is played as a no-nonsense, wizened master type, differing from Simon Yam’s soft-demeanored and potbellied Dog Head. Although Hwang runs a tight ship, his role is more of a shepherd caring for his flock — his underlings all have animal codenames — and he can be seen throughout the film providing fatherly guidance to his protégé, a young new female recruit who’s been nicknamed Piglet (Hyo-Ju Han). Those in senior positions always seem to behave honorably in discharging their duties, even putting their own jobs on the line in order to protect those in the lower ranks. Disobedience is dealt with strictly, but second chances are given when lessons are learned, and stakeouts are often accompanied with bouts of jokes and storytelling.
You may wonder then if the film isn’t just another formulaic action flick, but Cold Eyes works the conventions of the genre so well that it manages to provide something fresh and exciting despite the familiar set-ups. Having a much bigger technical budget compared to Eye in the Sky for aerial shots, chase scenes and all things that go boom is undeniably a factor. The film opens with a spectacular action sequence that gets the audience’s attention and their adrenaline pumping so you don’t really mind the slower relationship-building scenes that follow. Even those are handled well and sappy moments are kept to a minimum. Interspersed with decent action scenes that add to the narrative, the seamless, tight film editing works to get the suspense flowing along smoothly as the film continuously switches back and forth between the two worlds. As the cat-and-mouse game intensifies, various parts of the plot have been subtly adapted and changed in the remake so that the film’s pace advances briskly as Chief Hwang’s team gets ever closer, clue-by-clue, to catching James and his motley crew.
Cold Eyes is also darker in its undertone than its predecessor, not just because its villains appear inherently psychopathic, but there is a grittier quality to its production values. Shots of night scenes and shady, downtown alleyways, including a slickly choreographed à la Matrix fight scene in a corridor, give off the perfect ambiance of a suspense thriller insidiously unfolding in the seedy world of gang life and crime. It is a hugely entertaining and a very well-made remake that succeeds in holding the viewer’s interest throughout.
With its edgier cinematic style this film will have you sitting on the verge of your seat, all the while distracting you from questioning the bigger and deeper issues of the encroachment on citizen’s rights and privacy by the State’s surveillance policy. You will likely walk away feeling impressed by the undertakings of the film and the stylish shots, but maybe not so much by the film’s subtext of justifying the benevolent use of CCTV by ‘brother brother’ for the sake of public safety.