I grew up watching movies like Armageddon (1998), The Core (2003) and Dante’s Peak (1997). So when I heard the premise for Ashfall – about a group of South Korean soldiers trying to prevent a massive volcanic eruption from destroying half the Korean peninsula by using stolen nuclear warheads from North Korea while avoiding capture from the American military – I was in! Despite its over-the-top plot and occasional silly moments, Ashfall ended up being way cooler than I expected.
Paektu Mountain has erupted creating a massive earthquake resulting in devastating damage to both North and South Korea. But this is just the beginning. As predicted by Kang Bong-Rae (Dong-seok Ma) – a scientist whose thesis on the upcoming environmental disaster was ignored and mocked – there will be further damage and greater destruction to half the Korean Peninsula if drastic measures are not taken.
With the country in a state of pandemonium and citizens trying to escape the peninsular, Kang Bong-Rae’s plan of using an underground nuclear explosion to prevent further catastrophe is put into action. However this involves stealing nuclear warheads from North Korea before the Americans arrive as part of a denuclearization agreement. But before they can steal the warheads, they need to rescue a shifty North Korean spy, Lee Joon-Pyeong (Byung-hun Lee), from a North Korean prison because he is the only person who can lead them to the nukes. What could go wrong?
Explosives expert Jo In-Chang (Jung-woo Ha) is assigned to this deadly task as his last mission before discharging from the military. After making a promise to his pregnant wife that he’ll be home in time for the birth of their child, he must work with the spy to overcome hopeless odds in order to save his country and family from becoming the next Pompeii.
The version of Ashfall I saw was overdubbed in English so while I didn’t get to experience the full performance of the actors, I thought the acting was appropriate for a film that was going for a mix of action, comedy and moments of pulling heartstrings. There aren’t going to be any Oscars handed out for this cast, however I can’t fault the performances given the genre and vibe of the overall story.
Having said that, there were plenty of great moments with Byung-hun Lee who plays the self serving and seemingly without morals North Korean spy working for the Chinese. Byung-hun Lee showcases his acting chops by effortlessly switching between a tough, despicable survivor who will screw over whoever gets in his way, to being a selfless, vulnerable father full of regret on how his relationship with his daughter turned out. Given the over-the-top nature of the film, Byung-hun Lee brought a level of damaged humanity that helped prevent his character from being a two dimensional character you see so often in the action genre.
I get the feeling that duo directors Byung-seo Kim (Cold Eyes) and Hae-jun Lee (My Dictator, Castaway on the Moon) – who were both also part of the writing team – are fans of the same environmental disaster movies I grew up watching because they captured that vibe perfectly with Ashfall. It’s almost like I was transported to the late 90s to early 2000s, albeit with much more CGI. If there is an action movie trope checklist, then they tick off nearly all of them with Ashfall – though I was disappointed there weren’t any asteroids here.
Despite the 128-minute runtime, Ashfall never felt too long and never lulled as Byung-seo Kim and Hae-jun Lee expertly balance the explosive action with comedy and humanity. With plenty of obstacles for our heroes to overcome there’s actually a lot going on with the story, meaning things are constantly moving forward which could have easily overwhelmed the audience with too much action. The directors have done a great job offsetting the large amount of action and CGI with plenty of scenes focussing on the motivations of the characters to remind us why they are risking their lives with such a ridiculous plot – to save the ones they love.
Ashfall is one of those great all-rounder action movies that fans of the disaster genre will love because, while you may not recognize all the names of the stars since it’s a Korean film (Byung-hun Lee being the possible exception) – it ticks all the boxes you’d expect from a big-budget Hollywood blockbuster. If you’re looking for something deep and meaningful you should probably stay clear of this one but if you want to see plenty of stuff getting destroyed by mother nature and a plan so crazy that it might actually work, then this is one you owe it to yourself to check out.