What if John Wick fought zombies? That’s the question Yeon Sang-ho seems to be answering in Peninsula, the follow-up to his instant classic zombie flick Train to Busan. That film succeeded for much the same reason this one does: it knows what it is and it commits to being the best version of that it can be.
Peninsula opens with Jung-seok (Gang Dong-won) driving his family toward a ferry out of zombie-infested Korea. Min-jung (Lee Jung-hyun) is stranded with her family on the side of the road. He slows down, but leaves her because he’s worried that her husband may be infected. She is stranded in Korea, while he and his family escape to the boat. Soon after, tragedy strikes.
From here, the movie skips four years. A newscaster informs audiences that Korea has been completely overrun at this point, and “neighboring countries refused to accept any refugees.” Jung-seok and his brother-in-law Cheol-min (Kim Do-yoon, who you may recognize from The Wailing) go out for drinks, where another bar patron screams that they’re “Where the virus came from,” as though that is somehow their fault. It’s a prescient moment, considering the film was written before anyone had called COVID-19 “the Chinese virus.” Jung-seok and Cheol-min are asked to leave. Their prospects outside of Korea aren’t good.
They’re offered a job though: go back into Korea with two mercenaries and retrieve a truck full of money. The last team who attempted it died under mysterious circumstances, but if they make, they’ll get $2.5 million each. It doesn’t take them long to choose between being scapegoated for a disease and being rich. Their boss neglects to tell them that they aren’t the only ones looking for it.
The premise is part of what makes this such a good sequel. In Train to Busan, the zombies are the most dangerous villain, though certainly not the most hateable (looking at you, Yon-suk). Everyone’s trying to get away from them, but the train traps the humans, preventing any real escape. Peninsula is in many ways the opposite. Rather than an enclosed space, the characters are running around an entire city. The villains are a paramilitary organization. The zombies are still there, sure, but they’re an impediment to retrieving the money, not the main threat. In other words, this step in the trilogy (rounded about the dark anime Seoul Station) is making the leap from Alien to Aliens, replacing close-quarters cat and mouse games with military gunplay.
While Yeon doesn’t make any more allusions to that James Cameron helmed sequels, he does drop references to Cameron’s Terminator. As Joon (Lee Re) and Yu-jin (Lee Ye-won) powerslide their SUV through a horde of zombies to rescue Jung-seok, she says, “Hop in if you want to live,” an homage to Cameron’s famous “Come with me if you want to live.”
The film wears its other references on its sleeve as well. Gang Dong-won is channeling Keanu Reeves as John Wick in many of the action sequences, half-engaging in hand to hand combat, and half shooting anything that moves. The connection is most apparent when Jung-seok crushes an enemy’s toes with the butt of his rifle to put the enemy’s head in line with the barrel of the gun. Dong-won is excellent, bringing a similar intensity to what Reeves brings to his fights. Peninsula pays homage to another classic 2010s action film, Mad Max: Fury Road, with an epic, 20-minute long car chase.
While that car chase is fun as hell—and it’s more than a little satisfying to watch an SUV and a truck plow through hordes of zombies—much of it is CGI. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but the real cars and computer animated ones don’t feel right next to each other, leaving viewers paying attention to which stunts are CGI and which are real instead of enjoying the action.
While that action may be Peninsula’s main focus, like its predecessor it also has some moments that will jerk at your heartstrings. Sure, it’s melodramatic in Train to Busan (spoilers for that film ahead) when Sang-hwa dies and yells the name he wants his wife to name their daughter before the horde crushes him. The other deaths in that film and this one are melodramatic too, but the over-the-top feels are one of the series’ pleasures. No one watches professional wrestling for nuance. People watch because it’s awesome, and Peninsula, with all of its melodrama and trope characters, is awesome.
Peninsula’s greatest strength is Yeon and his cowriter Park Joo-suk’s ability to build scenes. They slip in little details that seem meaningless in the moment, but later reveal that the plot hinges on them. They set specific time limits on things, and then milk tension from those limits. For example, in Peninsula the characters need to move at night because zombies can’t see as well without light. Then, the writers set many scenes just before sunrise, adding that much more to the tension.
As good as they are at building tension, Yeon and Park show tremendous creativity as well. Rather than focusing on which weapon can most effectively cut off zombie heads, they go in a different direction. Yeon and Park don’t focus on weapons, but on creative ways to trick rather than kill zombies.
More than anything else, Peninsula is fun as hell. It’s a worthy successor to one of the best zombie movies in recent memory. Don’t miss out!*
Wicked Rating – 9/10
Director: Yeon Sang-ho
Writers: Park Joo-suk, Yeon Sang-ho
Stars: Gang Dong-won, Lee Jung-hyun, Kwon Hae-hyo, Kim Min-je, Koo Gyo-hwan, Kim Do-yoon, Lee Re, Lee Ye-won
Release Date: August 21, 2020 (Theaters, but seriously, don’t go during a pandemic)
Language: Korean, English
Runtime: 116 minutes
*When it comes out somewhere you can watch it safely.