NYAFF Review: Cold Eyes


Some of my favorite movies are ones that make me want to go and do something after the lights come up. Some films make me want to travel the world or shave my head or something. Others take professions and make them seem so much cooler than whatever it is I’m doing.

Cold Eyes, for example, made me want to become a spy. Which is sort of weird, because it’s not about spies. It’s about cops.

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COLD EYES Trailer | Festival 2013

Cold Eyes (Stakeout / Gamshijadeul | 감시자들)
Directors: Cho Ui-Seok and Kim Byung-Seo
Rating: NR
Country: South Korea 

Well, it’s about a cops and robbers. On one side are the trackers (my word, not theirs), who scout out information. On the other are the thieves, pulling off elaborate, perfectly timed heists. It’s something. Enter Team Animal (not their real name), a group of special officers renowned for their ability to locate anybody and everybody. Rookie detective Ha Yoon-Joo (Han Hyo-Joo) is the newest entry to the force, and right from the get-go, she shows off her incredible memory skills during her final assessment, recalling details that were probably impossible for her to have noticed. It makes her perfect for the team, and she joins immediately.

At first glance, their work doesn’t seem all that thrilling (and in reality, it’s probably not). In fact, the initially hot-headed Detective Ha can’t deal with just how simplistic their job is: They locate and identify criminals for others to confront. They track and trace but they don’t engage. It’s a fascinating job, and even though it would probably be boring the majority of the time, Cold Eyes makes it look awesome. The way the team works together as a unit to call out criminals is absolutely fascinating. And it’s what made me want to be a spy. They gather intel and bring it back to HQ, in and out in total secrecy. It’s badass. And I’m not ashamed to admit that I added just a little bit of generic “stealth” to my movements for the following couple of hours.

Behind it all is Hwang (Sol Kyung-Gu). Just as the heists need a man watching from above and calling the shots, the trackers need a voice in their ear to get them from point to point. Working from a constantly circling van, Hwang runs the show in a decidedly low-fi manner: using an old fashioned map of the city and wooden figurines he has to manually place in location. But that’s not because he doesn’t have the technology at his disposal, just that he prefers a more classic approach.

Cold Eyes

But then again, how “classic” could that be? I wonder how people were tracked before the advent of our interconnected world. The use of the city-wide surveillance cameras, phones, GPS trackers, and etc. all add up to a modern job for a modern world. And it seems like it would have been impossible to do what they’re doing even just 15 years ago. But despite its reliance on technology, nothing about Cold Eyes seems implausible. Films that go deep into that sort of thing often have to make leaps of logic just to push the narrative forward. Most frequently: blurry images need to magically resolve detail in a far-off reflection. Fortunately, Cold Eyes has none of that. Particularly notable is the lack of facial recognition software, because that’s just the reality.

Here’s a true fact: the FBI’s new system produces a list of 50 potential matches with only an 85% chance that the correct person is named. It’s the kind of thing that could make the tracking jobs significantly easier (and potentially even unnecessary), but it’s not possible with today’s technology. When films use it, they do so as a crutch. Cold Eyes’s refusal to go down that path was something I greatly appreciated. Instead of a computer’s algorithms, the constant surveillance footage is manually combed through by a whole bunch of people sitting at computer monitors. The technology is a tool, but it only aids their work; it does nothing to replace it.

Cold Eyes

That isn’t to say Cold Eyes is totally realistic; it isn’t. While pretty much everything the heroes do seem real enough (Detective Ha’s memory aside), the primary antagonist verges on being cartoonish. Part of this comes from his preferred location: high above the streets on a rooftop where he can survey his own operations. But when he gets into the heat of it, he’s even more dangerous than his goons. And when he pulls out his weapon to take on the good guys, it’s… a fountain pen. Seriously. I mean, as badass as it is to see him take someone down with a pen, it’s borderline stupid. And that goes back to his over-the-top villainy. He’s basically a perfect human, and while the only person who could get past the protagonists would have to be, it’s just a bit silly. That being said, Cold Eyes is at least part comedy, so it’s not as off-putting as it could have been. The majority of the comedy comes from Hwang’s running commentary. When they see a potential, overweight suspect on one camera, he instructs everyone to search for the “thirsty hippo,” and thus he is dubbed for the rest of the operation.

And it’s a badass operation. Though  centers around the capture of a single character, it’s interesting throughout. New tactics on both sides keep the action feeling fresh, even when nothing is actually accomplished. The actual confrontations are awesome too, and the film has some of the best pen-based fight choreography I’ve ever seen. But while the bombastic moments are fun, Cold Eyes is at its best when its characters are in the streets, working as a well-oiled machine tracking down their subjects. Those are the scenes that made me want to be a spy, and those are the scenes that will stick with me long after the credits have rolled.