The revenge flick is such a staple of action movies it's almost a cliche: someone close to the hero is attacked or killed or kidnapped, and the hero seeks violent revenge when the authorities can't do anything. But Nietzsche warned, "Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster" -- so what happens when the hero's tactics bring him closer and closer to the behavior of the villain? This is the situation in I Saw the Devil, a brutal Korean movie about violence and revenge and more violence.

Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) is an absolutely brutal psychopath. He drives around in a school bus, looking for women alone; when he has a target he bludgens them into unconsciousness, brings them to his home, and what happens next is too graphic to mention. His most recent victim, Joo-yeon (Oh San-ha), was the daughter of a retired police chief -- and fiancee of secret agent Kim Soo-hyeon (Lee Byung-hun). Kim is a hot-shot agent -- one could imagine his character as a Korean James Bond -- and with the help of his would-be father-in-law, quickly finds Kyung-chul.

For better or worse, though, Kim doesn't want simple revenge. After brutally beating Kyung-chul, Kim forces him to swallow a tracking device that lets Kim hear and follow Kyung-chul. Kim's plan is to keep torturing Kyung-chul, keeping him alive and in pain until the psychopath suffers as much as Joo-yeon did. Unfortunately, Kyung-chul is both smart and relentless; and he keeps slaughtering people even as Kim keeps track of him.

I Saw the Devil is a powerful combination of action, horror, and even philosophy. At first glance, Kyung-chul seems to be little more than a thug preying on the helpless, and Kim seems to be the young, handsome skilled avenger, yet as the movie goes on Kim becomes more focused on his own monstrous acts against the brutal psychopath -- especially when he heard Kim talking with some fellow serial killers who comment that Kim is like them, a hunter. "Revenge is for the movies," warns Se-yeon (Yoon-seo Kim), yet Kim continues with his plan for revenge -- even when it begins spiralling out of control. It's impossible to feel any sort of sympathy for Kyung-chul -- yet Kim's actions seem as responsible for the further evils as Kyung-chul's actions.

The acting and action in I Saw the Devil are both excellent. Min-sik Choi makes his psychopath completely amoral, horrific, almost simple (no Hannibal Lecter here: This one curses constantly and chain-smokes), and disturbingly uncaring about what he does or what happens to him. Byung-hun Lee is also excellent as the good man who has to keep steeling himself to continue down a path of revenge that seems to get more and more people killed. The action and horror also blend together nicely, as car chases and martial arts go hand-in-hand in a world of unflinching violence and stomach-churning tortures.

Korean cinema has its share of movies that are both disturbing and thought-provoking (Oldboy and The Audition come to mind), and I Saw the Devil is a worthy addition to that list. This is certainly not a movie for the faint of heart, but it is a gigantic step up from the typical Hollywood movie where the audience is expected to cheer for the hero as his behavior starts to resemble that of the villain he pursues. Revenge here has seldom been so cool-looking -- or so morally murky.

Overall grade: A-
Reviewed by James Lynch

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