For better and worse, South Korean period adventure Assassination is the kind of overstuffed historical mega-production that Hollywood doesn't make anymore. Assassination, a postwar drama set in Seoul (then called Gyeongseong) during the 1930s, is at its best when it's a light, Great Escape–style putting-on-a-mission thriller, and not a leaden Exodus-esque historical epic that bludgeons viewers with contextualizing details that establish their drama's urgency.
Stoic nationalist Yem Sek-jin's (Lee Jung-jae) motley crew of anti-provisional-government freedom fighters may have fought an oppressive way of life by plotting to kill Japanese Garrison Commander Kawaguchi Mamoru (Park Byeong-eun) and Korean collaborator Kang In-guk (Lee Kyeong-yeong). But it all works best as a ticking-clock thriller about scheming to assassinate war profiteers -- and the discovery of a Japanese mole in the midst of Yem's team.
Writer-director Choi Dong-hoon (The Thieves, Tazza: The High Rollers) accomplishes more with jokes about his characters' dated way of thinking than with overheated flashbacks that establish how evil Yem's enemies are. Even Yem's sensational flashback to the execution of his former colleagues isn't as involving as unrefined sniper Ahn Ok-yun's (Gianna Jun) Chaplin-esque discovery of how to drink coffee: She reflexively mimics another customer's actions, right down to sucking on a teaspoon of sugar. Life after wartime may be a nightmare, especially when you're forced to salute the flag of an occupying country on a daily basis, as Choi shows us in a particularly bathetic sequence. But Assassination is a blast whenever the director doesn't take his melodramatic plot too seriously.