In his directorial debut, Lee Sang-geun builds a solid survival actioner on the foundations laid by classic action flicks like The Towering Inferno, Die Hard and versatility of MacGyver. It’s a familiar story about ordinary people striving to stay alive in such a dire situation. Then, Sang-geun injects tongue-to-cheek comedy and some awkward romance elements to spice up things. The result is a tonal mess that offers endless adrenaline rush and deadpan laughs.
The protagonist is Yong-nam (Cho Jung-seok), a rock-climbing prodigy whose luck runs out after graduation. Unemployed and estranged from the rest of his family, Yong-nam insists on celebrating his mother’s 70th birthday in a venue where his old crush, Eui-ju (Yoona), works. Soon, he finds himself a fish out of water when his presence sinks beyond his in-laws and nieces’ charms. As if the night hasn’t been sour enough for him, a terrorist attacks the town, releasing a highly lethal gas into the ground. Yong-nam, Eui-ju and the rest of the family will soon find themselves trapped in the building as the gas starts spreading across the town. The only way to survive is by going up to the building’s rooftop and hoping the rescue team saves them on time.
Partially a disaster movie, the Towering Inferno‘s influence is apparent in this movie. However, the game-changer is Jung-seok, portraying the loser that becomes a reluctant hero in one fateful night. Albeit a loser, Jung-seok’s character, Yong-nam, is a fast-thinking action hero who barely realizes that he is that action hero. His situation somehow reminds us of John McClane in the first Die Hard, where he finds it difficult mingling with the crowd only to find himself to be the one to save the day. Yong-nam and Eui-ji make a great action hero couple as they jostle around the building, improvising with whatever comes to hand and relying on their intact rock-climbing skills. Both of them seem to be holding the MacGyver spirit in mind with only one goal: outrunning the perilous smoke.
Director Sang-geun knows pretty well how to create spectacles with an exuberant dose of comedy—a formula of classic action flicks. In one scene, Yong-nam will climb a building unassisted; at the same time, his family is observing via video call. At some other scene, Yong-nam and Eui-ji will risk their lives making an SOS decoy using standees only to find other people worthy of immediate rescue. Sang-geun exploits the character’s fortune for two reasons at once: to craft thrilling spectacles and to become the laughing target for their unfortunate moments.
With the unlikely blend of survival actions and tongue-to-cheek comedy, EXIT is unquestionably a tonal mess, but it constantly delivers the edge-of-the-seat thrills and hilarity at the same time. While the movie sinks knee-deep to the ongoing trend of South Korean action-comedy (see Extreme Jobs or Miss & Mrs. Cops), it proves to be a worthy one that deserves the attention for its homage to the classic actioners that die as hard as the genre. Cho Jung-seok is proficient in portraying the unlikely hero; meanwhile, Yoona makes a visible improvement in her acting ability. With the chemistry among them alone, the action scenes look believable and, somehow, sympathetic.