I've said it time and time again (but who's listening), war is hell, and 71 Into The Fire (포화 속으로) is yet another film that drives that point home. What's different this time around is the perspective in which we view the atrocities of war; through the eyes of teenagers. That can't be right...can it?
It's 1950 and the Korean war is in full effect with the North making it's advances. A unit of South Korean soldiers, led by Kang Seok-dae (Kim Seung-woo), are feeling the pressure and are in constant retreat. With limited resources at their disposal, Seok-dae recruits as many fresh bodies as he can which is where our 71 teenage students come into picture. The 71 students are thrown right into the mess of things (hence the title of the film), with Oh Jang-beom (Big Bang's Choi Seong-hyeon), put in place as the acting commander of his fellow students, because he's the only one with actual battle experience. Reluctantly left in charge of a varied group of misfits and troubled, inexperienced youth, with Koo Kap-jo (Kwon Sang-woo) being the biggest pain in the butt and murderer no less, Jang-beom must muster up the courage to hold down the fort at an abandoned middle school with his comrades to keep the North from advancing. Sounds like a pretty tall order for any of us, let alone being a teenager and having never really handled a rifle before. The group of North Koreans pushing forward are led by General Park Moo-rang (Cha Seung-won), who is as cool as can be and seems completely battle-hardened. Jang-beom tries against all odds to keep his troop together, but Seok-dae and his two goofball buddies have their own agenda and refuse to take orders from our young commander. So with limited weaponry and unruly subordinates, will Jang-beom be able to rally the troops in time to effectively stop the advancing North Korea troops? Or will General Park's men be far too much for these kids to take on? And where the hell is Seok-dae with the backup!?
Premise alone, 71 Into the Fire might sound like a campy, almost comedic take on the war-film genre. However, don't be fooled dear reader as this is indeed a serious film with plenty of blood sprayed across your screen. I suppose it just seems unheard of to most of us to picture teenagers having to lock and load and go to battle with basically no battle experience. However, desperate times call for desperate measures and the Korean war was certainly such a time for many. That being said, let's get down to business. The first half of the film left me mostly unimpressed for a number of reasons. The story is super basic stuff. Northern troops on the move, but Southern troops, teenagers mind you, block their path. However, director Lee Jae-han said, "hey, let's stretch this premise out to two hours shall we?", unnecessarily. Let's shorten some of these scenes...tighten it up people! The action really looks amazing though, I will say that much. If you love explosions, gunfire, slow-motion and people catching rounds with their bodies, then 71 Into the Fire delivers the goods.
Try as I might, I couldn't get past the fact that our young commander was played by a singing and dancing pretty boy, Big Bang's T.O.P., as he's known. Smudging a little mud on the cheeks doesn't exactly make him look like a tough guy. I didn't want to just write him off and as the film went along I did enjoy the journey his character took, from quiet and intimidated to a guy that could lead his fellow men into battle. I warmed up to him but ultimately Choi Seung-hyeon lacked the charisma that takes a lead to another level which made him feel one-note. Oh, what's this!? Another pretty boy, Kwon Sang-woo, playing the bad-boy role yet again? Alas, I really had issues with his character. He's introduced to us as a murderer on his way to juvenile detention but they keep him around because hey, he has a bone to pick with the North Koreans that killed his parents and the South needs soldiers. Sounds like a deal! Add the fact that he's as difficult as can be and altogether obnoxious and you have a character that you roll your eyes at everytime he's on screen because you know what to expect from him. There was some retribution for him later on in the film but it felt like a case of too-little, too-late. The real stand-out performance for me was the North Korean General, Park Moo-rang. This guy was hardcore the minute you saw him and remained that way throughout. Nothing ruffles his feathers and he just made being a bad guy look cool. Job well done I say. The cast of young soldiers were very affecting and there were times where I was genuinely moved by the madness they were all experiencing and the sadness they were conveying. This supporting cast, far too numerous to credit here, were effective and helped in creating a realistic atmosphere.
Let's be honest, the really touching thing about 71 Into the Fire is that it's based on a true story and the actions of these 71 kids that slowed down the North for eleven hours, thus giving the US and South Korean troops an advantage with a counterattack. With that in mind, I believe the filmmakers succeeded in making the importance of that fact clear and while I question some of the casting choices and felt they could've snipped a few minutes here and there, the end result is a mostly successful and ultimately touching look at the unlikeliest of heroes. (Lee)
Grade: B -