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Netflix’s Carter puts action above all else

Joo Won stars in the streamer’s new action showpiece

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Joo Won in Carter.
Joo Won in Carter.
Image: Netflix

Netflix has released many glitzy, action-filled episodic series this year, including All of Us Are Dead and Money Heist: Korea. But its next big action piece is a film, Carter, which stars Joo Won in the leading role. The usually clean-cut heartthrob image of Joo Won undergoes a startling transformation here into the rugged, ruffian-like Carter (the namesake of the film’s title). Carter is directed by Jung Byung-gil, who has made his career out of his stylized, high-octane action direction in films like The Villainess (2017) and Confession of Murder (2012). 

Viewers who are looking for a solid action film will find plenty of thrills in the captivating, sleekly edited Carter, where its action sequences are all woven together to give the film a “one take” effect. There are stunning aerial views of rooftop fights and waterfall escapes, alongside spine-tingling chases through dimly lit cavernous rooms — with the increasingly familiar backdrop of tension between North and South Korea thrown in. What Carter sets out to accomplish in action, choreography, and set design, it pulls off with great aplomb.

However, those looking for a more character-driven story or who have a lower tolerance for long, elaborate action sequences might find Carter’s 132-minute runtime a bit too overwhelming. 

Carter begins with an exposition-heavy introduction, noting that the Korean peninsula is grappling with a dire infectious outbreak of the “DMZ virus.” The viral infection creates “animal-like behaviors” and increases violent tendencies in the infected. Leaders from North and South Korea are working together to create an antibody treatment using the blood of Doctor Jung’s daughter, named Ha-na, who was cured of the DMZ virus infection through her father’s research. However, Doctor Jung (Jung Jae-young) and Ha-na (Kim Bo-min) go missing during a transfer arrangement to North Korea, where the doctor was supposed to further his research and mass-produce a cure for the virus at the Sinuiju Chemical Weapons Institute. There, crowds of infected North Korean patients are also held in quarantine. Meanwhile, Carter wakes up and finds a mysterious voice giving him instructions through an earpiece. He has no choice but to follow through with the mission as he has a lethal bomb embedded in his mouth.

The DMZ virus outbreak takes place only 10 months after a cease-fire between North and South Korea, with the armistice in delicate balance amid distrust on both sides over the botched transfer of Doctor Jung and Ha-na. The geopolitical backdrop and health crisis provide the necessary narrative stakes amid the film’s nonstop whirlwind of action. There is also a whole cast of fascinating characters: foreign liaisons, North Korean Workers’ Party members, military leaders, intelligence agents, infectious disease doctors, and children. Unfortunately, each of them is only lightly used (with the exception of young Ha-na); they exit as quickly as they enter, leaving viewers to rue the missed opportunities to deepen the film’s storytelling and character arcs. 

There is an acute sense in Carter that the action will always take precedence over character development or well-crafted emotional turns. The film also has a considerable amount of gore, which feels prolonged or even indulged by the “one shot” style of the film. At several points in Carter, viewers may struggle to find answers to some fundamental questions in the sacred art of crafting a story: what is currently driving the story’s protagonist, Carter, to take on such a disproportionate amount of risk? On the other side, what are the reasons behind the antagonist’s decisions? In essence, what is the motivation behind the action of each character? 

One of the biggest talking points of Carter is the “single take” style that it was shot in. While the film is admittedly made up of several shots, the overall effect works. As the film breathlessly moves from a public bathhouse to a bus, warehouse, medical facility, clothes shop, and airplane, just to name a few, the “single take” style gives Carter a feeling of vastness in space that few action films have been able to achieve. The camera tirelessly chases the equally industrious Carter through the physical space, trapped together in the chaos and uncertainty. There is neither reprieve offered by an alternative angle nor extra knowledge gained through an establishing shot; the enemy can emerge from any direction.

Joo Won in Carter.
Joo Won in Carter.
Image: Netflix

Several sequences are a triumph of filmmaking, particularly those involving vehicles soaring through a dizzying array of backdrops: a motorbike chase scene through labyrinthian streets and alleyways, an airplane standoff that transforms into a skydiving fight scene (which was shot with the actors really skydiving) and a fight sequence involving trucks and jeeps speeding through an agricultural landscape. Sequences are threaded together nearly effortlessly — a stark contrast to the unimaginably labor-intensive work and planning that went into creating Carter. At times, the film feels like one giant, tangled escape room game. There is perhaps a nagging question here of whether Carter’s cinematic accomplishments are wasted on the small screens that Netflix’s audiences will encounter the film, as all the effort may not fully translate to home viewing. 

It is in the last 25 minutes of the film that Carter really digs into the meatier issues and develops an unexpected emotional gravity. There is the question of kinship — the family we are born into and the “family” we find — and how duties of responsibility and care figure into these relationships. The film also raises questions about identity and the information war through Carter’s loss of memory. The pervasiveness of technology — the film takes this very literally, through the embedded electronics in Carter’s body — reverberates with relevance. Just as Carter grapples with trying to figure out his identity through the ceaseless influx of text messages as well as information given by a faceless voice, technology has also disconcertingly become a major force in determining knowledge about ourselves and the world.

These are all interesting questions raised by Carter. However, viewers may find themselves having to dig well beneath the film’s explosions and chase scenes to find them.

Carter is streaming on Netflix now.