Korean spy thriller The Age of Shadows may have the same basic plot as a "Zapata Western," the kind of Spaghetti Western that follows an amoral mercenary who gets transformed into a committed revolutionary by a tightly knit group of freedom fighters. But writer/director Kim Jee-woon's gripping 1920s period piece isn't just an homage to older movies, even if it never goes anywhere you don't expect it to.
Kim (I Saw the Devil; The Good, The Bad, and the Weird) makes you care about selfish police chief Jung-chool's (Song Kang-ho) conversion into a bomb-slinging dissident by emphasizing circumstantial peril over psychological realism. Viewers learn everything they need to know about the Korean collaborator, who's working with the Japanese government to capture resistance leader Che-san (Lee Byung-hun) in the midst of exceptionally well-choreographed chases and tense dialogue exchanges.
There's also a wealth of character detail in relatively low-key conversations, particularly Jung-chool's first meeting with stoic rebel Woo-jin (Gong Yoo). In a couple of minutes, Kim establishes these two protagonists' fundamental differences -- Woo-jin is an optimist, while Jung-chool is a skeptic -- through warm front-lighting, intimate medium close-ups and cheekbone-highlighting makeup. Kim also subtly draws attention to body language and interpersonal chemistry during climactic action scenes, like a three-way standoff set in a cramped luxury train's dining car. You may have seen parts of The Age of Shadows before, but they're rarely this well assembled.