The governments of South Korea and the United States have been working together to bring about the denuclearization of North Korea. A U.S. ship is on its way to deactivate the nation’s final 6 warheads when a massive 7.8 magnitude earthquake occurs on the Korean Peninsula, caused by the eruption of a volcano on Baekdu Mountain. However, this was just the first of 4 magma chambers under the volcano to blow. Over the next few days the other chambers will follow in sequence, and when the final chamber goes, nearly half of the Korean Peninsula will be wiped out. Yoo-kyung (Hye-jin Jeon), the Secretary to the South Korean President, is in charge of the effort to prevent this disaster. She enlists the help of Korean-American professor Bong-rae (Don Lee), a geologist and volcano expert who three years earlier had predicted this eruption, but no one took him seriously at the time. Bong-rae reluctantly agrees to help, and comes up with a plan that would involve detonating a controlled 600 kiloton bomb in the mines below the volcano to relieve the pressure and prevent the fourth magma chamber from erupting. This plan only has a 3.48% chance of success, but it’s the only solution they’ve got. So while Bong-rae works on improving the odds, the president starts to put his plan into action.
Captain Cho In-chang (Jung-woo Ha) has had a long career as part of the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal) unit. He and wife Ji-young (Suzy Bae) are expecting their first child soon, and so it’s time for him to move on to something less dangerous. Today was the day he was supposed to be discharged, but he is assigned to be part of the dangerous mission to stop the volcano from erupting. He and his team of bomb techs are to join a team of combat soldiers in a covert mission across the DMZ and into North Korea. The plan is to extract the uranium from the 6 remaining ICBMs, create a new bomb, and detonate it in the mines below the volcano. However, there’s one major catch—the only person who knows the location of the warheads is North Korean spy/defector Joon-pyeong (Byung-hun Lee), who has been arrested and is being detained in North Korea. They must first break him out of prison, and then convince him to help them find the warheads if they are to have any chance of success.
As the two teams’ planes take off in the dark of night, things quickly go awry. Captain Cho soon finds himself in charge of the entire mission, despite the fact that neither he nor his team has any combat training. This becomes quite evident to Joon-pyeong when they come to rescue him, and he decides to take advantage of their inexperience for his own ulterior motives, and proves to be quite the wily and uncooperative hostage, adding new obstacles and frustrations to the already difficult mission. And if that wasn’t enough, the North Koreans and Americans are also after the nukes, and it isn’t long before the rescue mission comes under attack from more than just mother nature. Meanwhile, back in the south, In-chang’s pregnant wife is desperately trying to make her way to the evacuation site, but with each new chamber’s eruption, the situation gets more and more dangerous.
Ashfall is your typical over-the-top big disaster film, but with some humor and interesting character drama thrown in as well. At the core is this story of a man who just wants to complete his mission so that he can get back to his wife and unborn child. Along the way he must learn to take charge or the situation and become a leader if they have any chance of success. He’s got this thorn in his side with Joon-pyeong, but early on, this cunning spy finds a way to make it so that In-chang has no other choice but to keep him around. There is this Midnight Run aspect to the film. After In-chang and his team rescue Joon-pyeong from prison, he is constantly trying to escape or get the upper hand, and there is this playful, humorous banter between the two men. You never quite know if Joon-pyeong is good or bad. While it’s obvious why In-chang needs Joon-pyeong, it’s not quite clear as to what Joon-pyeong wants from In-chang. This is slowly revealed as the film goes on. Also, over the course of the mission, the two men ultimately find some common ground and come to appreciate one another.
Even with this character drama going on, the film is still feels like a big budget disaster film. When the initial volcano blast goes off, it’s like a scene out of Independence Day—In-chang is stuck in traffic, heading home to his wife, and through the rear window of his vehicle, you can see the collapsing skyscrapers rapidly approaching. And so he makes his way onto the opposite lane of the highway, narrowly avoiding other cars and the endless destruction raining down from the earthquake as he speeds his way to safety. Ashfall is loaded with these kinds of familiar big action set pieces. Characters always seem to find their way onto a massive suspension bridge each time a new magma chamber explodes, causing the familiar drama of cars being trapped or falling, or water rushing towards the potential victims. In another scene, you see a group of people in slow motion as they leap out of an elevator just as a big explosion takes down the building behind them. While the special effects are generally quite good, the sequence where In-chang is driving away from and through the destruction from the first quake often felt like you were watching CG video game footage and not a real vehicle. Fortunately, this was not an indicator of the quality of what was to come—the other effects looked far more realistic.
Overall I quite enjoyed the film, though I am generally a big fan of these kinds of big disaster films. Ashfall‘s Blu-ray release provides solid video and audio presentation. The picture remains clear and detailed no matter how fast-paced the action or how big the explosions on screen. The disc offers both the original Korean language soundtrack as well as an English dub. I opted for the English dub, which was the default. The dub was well done, though it was odd that they decided to tone down some of the cursing that was present in the subtitles. Both audio tracks provide an excellent, immersive experience, with the stereo and surround channels well-utilized to fill the room. The sounds of explosions and buildings collapsing come from all directions, the sounds of helicopters can be heard overhead, the sounds bullets whiz across the room, and so on. Most of the text that appears on the screen, such as locations and news report crawls are presented in English. One exception is when characters receive text messages, which appear in the subtitles.
The Blu-ray disc comes packed in a standard HD keepcase without a slipcover, and no digital copy is included. The disc includes two short promotional featurettes with the cast and filmmakers, as well as the film’s trailer. The featurettes are presented in Korean with English subtitles.
- 1080p / Widescreen 2.39:1
- Audio: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, Korean DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
- Subtitles: English SDH, English
- Region Code: A,B
- Making Of (4:27)
In this promotional featurette, the cast and filmmakers discuss the story, working with the other actors, working with the alternating directors, and the long 155 day shoot. Includes behind-the-scenes footage, pre-vis footage, and interviews with directors Lee Hae Jun & Kim Byung Seo, producer Kim Yong Hwa, director of photography Kim Ji Yong, production designer Kim Byung Han, and stars Lee Byung Hun (“Joon-pyeong”), Ma Dong Seok a.k.a. Don Lee (“Kang Bong-Rae”), Ha Jung Woo (“Cho In-Chang”), Bae Su Zy (“Choi Ji-Young”), and Jeon Hye Jin (“Jun Yoo-Kyung”). Presented in Korean with English subtitles.
- Character Featurette (3:24)
Each of the actors talks about his or her character and what it was like working on the film. Includes behind-the-scenes footage, and interviews with Lee Byung Hun, Ha Jung Woo, Ma Dong Seok a.k.a. Don Lee, Jeon Hye Jin, and Bae Su Zy. Presented in Korean with English subtitles.
- Trailer (1:34)
- Also Available (7:46)
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Ashfall is an exciting and entertaining popcorn disaster movie meets reluctant partner action/comedy that you can just sit back and thoroughly enjoy. Along with these big action set pieces, the film also explores some interesting relationships and drama, making the characters more than just two-dimensional action heroes. The Blu-ray looks and sounds great, but the extras are a bit slim—just two short behind-the-scenes featurettes with the cast/filmmakers. Anyone who enjoys these kind of big budget action/disaster films should have a blast with this one.