"Eye in the Sky" was one of the most under-appreciated movies of 2007, a taut and tense Hong Kong thriller from auteur Johnnie To's Milkyway Image banner which boasted compelling performances from Milkyway regulars Simon Yam and Tony Leung under the auspicious directorial debut of To's frequent assistant Law Wing Cheong.
Fortunately for fans of the original, "Cold Eyes" isn't one of those remakes that ends up sullying the reputation of its predecessor; instead, directors Cho Ui-seok and Kim Byung-seo have succeeded in creating an equally gripping movie that is both reverential to its source material and imaginative enough to stand on its own. Indeed, the beauty of their film lies in how it manages to balance elements from the original with its own ideas, trading one metropolis for another without losing the idiosyncrasies of Seoul's urban landscape or for that matter of Milkyway's high-brow concept.
Like "Eye", Cho begins with the team's latest addition, Yoon-ju (Han Hyo-joo), being assigned to track a middle-aged man whose identity she is oblivious to. In actual fact, the man is none other than her soon-to- be leader Hwang (Seol Kyung-gu), the "mission" an on-the-job interview for the Chief to assess her abilities. While trading Hong Kong's signature tram cars for Seoul's underground subway, the details remain the same - Hwang drops a newspaper along the way, bumps into another lady, enters a phone booth, scribbles on a piece of paper torn from the phone book, and finally sits down in a café where he confronts her - every single one just as important for Yoon-ju's assignment.
As Hwang is testing Yoon-ju, a band of criminals led by James (Jung Woo- sung) execute a high-precision heist at a bank in downtown Seoul, eventually making off with millions after evading the police in no small measure due to a diversion created by one of their members. He's the equivalent of the original's Lam Suet, a crucial mark the team will eventually focus on to get their first break into a seemingly flawless plan. James is however here a criminal-for-hire rather than his own mastermind, a new addition from the original being a mysterious broker (Kim Byeong-OK) whom the former gets his orders from.
Staying true to the nature of such operations, Cho keeps their target elusive in the first hour of the film; instead, he takes the opportunity of that waiting game to emphasise the character beats that will pay off later in several surprisingly affecting scenes, in particular, that between Chief Hwang and Yoon-ju. Kyung-gu plays the strict but warm- hearted Hwang visibly tougher than Simon Yam was in the original, but otherwise the dynamic between mentor and rookie is pretty much similar - and in the days spent waiting for their mark, Hwang will come to recognise and admire Yoon-ju's intelligence and tenacity, while the latter will take to the former like a daughter to a father. That bond was the heart and soul of "Eye", and Cho's retelling loses none of the original's poignancy, especially given Seol and Han's heartfelt chemistry in their scenes together.
Yet even in the midst of these character-driven moments, Cho keeps a tight grip on the film's pace set in motion from the very first riveting frame. Like a procedural, every fascinating detail of the team's stakeout from their covers to their routine is carefully depicted - even their disposition on the field, as exemplified by Yoon-ju's break from protocol by intervening to assist a woman being bullied by a group of thugs. And as a perfect counterbalance, we are also acquainted with James, whose potent combination of methodical and meticulous injects frissons of menace into the proceedings.
From tense to intense pretty much describes the second half of the movie, which kicks into high gear when the team follows their target to discover the rest of his crew - sans James, who manages to keep his cover a little longer by always keeping a safe distance, though never letting his watchful eye slip, from his associates. Once again, Cho stays true to the spirit of the original - choreographing edge-of-your- seat moments as Hwang and Yoon-ju trail James through a myriad of small alleys - while expanding the scope of the action thanks to a much larger budget, including a car chase that unfolds amidst Seoul's busy streets and culminates in a standoff in the middle of a flyover.
Perhaps most significantly, Cho retains the karmic twist at the end of "Eye" despite dropping such a reference in the English title this remake adopts - and for those who have not seen that earlier movie, let's just say it has something to do with Buddhist teachings. Cho's respect for his inspiration is clear at every turn - even in the alias 'Piglet' Yoon-ju assumes in the field - which is probably the reason why he manages to snag Simon Yam to appear in a brief cameo right at the end.
Whether as a remake or as a film on its own, this is without a doubt a first-rate exceptional thriller that makes the most of its distinctive premise to deliver an edge-of-your-seat adrenaline-pumping ride. No wonder then that the movie has gone on to become one of the biggest hits this year in its home territory - and with original lead star Yam clearly on board, we can say that obvious sequel has become one of those we really cannot wait to see.