Friday, February 23, 2024

'578 Magnum' (2023) Movie Review

Alexandre Nguyen looking dour.
There’s nothing quite like watching a movie missing much of the connective tissue between scenes to make you appreciate that facet that so often goes unnoticed and underappreciated. You may not always recognize the work it does, but holy hell, do you miss it when it’s gone. And that is a big, big problem with Vietnamese writer/director Luong Dinh Dung’s 578 Magnum. The film is, however, Vietnam’s official Oscar entry for 2023, and though there are definite highpoints, there are also gargantuan problems to skirt.


The basic plot follows Hung (Alexandre Nguyen), a truck driver who, of course, was also once a badass military operator of the highest order. When his young daughter, An (Thanh Than), is kidnapped and assaulted, she escapes (or something, it’s unclear), he hunts down the rich kid who traffics (really) young kids, for retribution. This quest also puts Hung at odds with a sprawling, powerful crime syndicate headed by rich kid’s dad. The good news is that this crime syndicate has plenty of faceless goons for Hung to pummel. The bad news is that the rest is something of a mess.


[Related Reading: 'Clash' (AKA 'Bay Rong') Movie Review]

H'Han Nie hanging out in a club.
Taken on their own, the action scenes are fantastic. Nguyen is a capable fighter and watching him tear through the aforementioned goons is the primary joy of this movie. He’s mostly a sharp-jawed blank slate outside of these scenes, but when he gets to throw down, he makes up for his lack of charisma elsewhere. We get tons of inventive fights, including one set in a mid-lagoon temple where he skips a bunch of plates off the water to take out baddies. (Where he got plates in a temple in the middle of a lagoon is a logistical matter that isn’t addressed, but that’s a secondary concern.) There’s also a bevy of more traditional martial arts throwdowns, gun battles, and an odd sword fight. Though she’s only onscreen for a couple scenes, H’Hen Nie, who plays fellow trucker Bao Vi, gets her own badass shining moments. If this was to become a regular thing for her, no one would complain. (She unfortunately has way more presence than the protagonist and only a fraction of the face time.)


578 Magnum is, quite often, a stunning movie to look at. There’s a chase scene at the mid-way point where a female biker gang chases down Hung in his truck, using handfuls of dye and pigments to block out his windows. Motorcycles zoom back and forth, amidst bright clouds of slow-motion dust, to create striking, memorable images. The film makes use of sweeping aerial shots and unusual angles. In the mid-water scene, one establishing shot shows the setup from above, the temple surrounded by canoes and kayaks, as Hung swims stealthily beneath. It’s the kind of shot that makes you pause and take note, and there are plenty of others to find.


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A temple in the middle of a lagoon.
Outside of a basic plot that we’ve seen countless times, and a lead who is admittedly less compelling to watch than you’d like, 578 Magnum has two significant issues. The first is, it takes way too long to get to the point and become the movie it wants to be. This is an action banger, but the first 40 minutes is a lackluster slog of jumbled, toothless drama, and the movie is only 80 minutes long.  


The second, and most dire problem is one already mentioned. Scenes happen almost in a vacuum, disconnected from one another with no build up or even context. Out of nowhere, we’re on a floating temple in the middle of a lagoon where one dude gives an impromptu harp concert. Then boom, Hung is fighting a henchman in a mansion. An is gone, then she’s back. Somehow. Bao Vi just happens to show up out of nowhere to save the day. There’s no explanation where she came from, how she found Hung, or where she goes immediately afterward.


[Related Reading: 'Mayhem!' Movie Review]

Two dudes fighting.
There’s something to be said for streamlining a narrative and not dawdling needlessly, but so often in this movie, there’s no through line from one beat to the next, and scenes have no relation to one another or continuity. It’s entirely possible they didn’t have time, money, or other resources to shoot everything they needed, that happens all the time, but the result is a film that feels like a sequence of unrelated events and then it’s over.


It’s hard to recommend 578 Magnum whole heartedly—no, I don’t know why it’s called 578 Magnum either—to anyone but action diehards. When it comes to that, Luong Dinh Dung, Alexandre Nguyen, H’Hen Nie, and the rest have a handle on things. The fights, chases, and more are well worth a look, but there are too many narrative holes, bland, underdeveloped characters, and a tepid rehash of a plot for the film to rise above. I’m someone who regularly overlooks glaring issues in a movie because there’s kickass action, but in this instance, even that may not be enough. [Grade: C]

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