Badland Hunters Review: Netflix Shows Why Don Lee Is Korea’s Most Kick-Ass Action Hero


Badland Hunters is Netflix’s latest entry into the world of Korean cinema, and it makes for a gritty post-apocalyptic actioner featuring one of Korea’s biggest stars, Don Lee. However, there’s some confusion about whether it’s a sequel or not. Last year, one of Korea’s biggest blockbusters was Concrete Utopia. Critically acclaimed for its dystopian vision, that film was a tour de force for veteran lead actor Lee Byung-hun. It also won numerous Korean film awards and was South Korea’s entry for the Best International Feature Film category for this year’s Academy Awards. However, it did not make the shortlist. 

Concrete Utopia is about a devastating earthquake that reduces Seoul to rubble. Everything is in ruins except the Imperial Palace Apartments. The apartment dwellers covet their resources and keep outsiders out, building a utopia lead by Yeong-tak (Lee). The film was lauded for its keen observations on power, hope, humanity, and the worst sides of society. 

Badland Hunters, conversely, takes place three years after a big quake. Again, the capital is in ruin, and survivors struggle to endure a drought where water and food is scarce. There’s another apartment complex that has fortified itself against outsiders. Water and food are plentiful there, but it’s run by a sinister cult surrounding a mad scientist, Dr. Yang Gi-su (Lee Hee-joon). The look and feel of this post-apocalyptic world is parallel to Concrete Utopia, so much so that even Wikipedia claims Badland Hunters is a sequel, but Director Heo Myung-haeng insists otherwise.

“It’s an independent work,” Heo claimed in the media, “with a totally different universe and plot.” Original or not, Badland Hunters is the first directorial effort by Heo. The filmmaker has risen from the ranks of stuntman to director, just like Chad Stahelski’s trajectory to helmer of the John Wick films. Cast in the leading role is Korea’s foremost action star, Don Lee, who had worked with Heo before on projects where they were both before the cameras. But what happens when one of them pivots to behind the lens?

Mighty Don Lee

If you don’t know about Lee, it’s time to catch up to Korea’s hottest action star. Lee already has 60 films to his credit, although many of his early roles were supporting. His big global breakout part was playing Yoon Sang-hwa, the husband who had to fight off zombies to protect his pregnant wife in the game-changing action horror hybrid, Train to Busan

The success of Train to Busan catapulted Lee into lead action roles, including playing the ill-fated Gilgamesh in the MCU’s middling pandemic release, Eternals. But in 2022, a year after Gilgamesh, Lee struck box office gold with The Roundup, a ballistic ultraviolent cop-versus-gangster drama that was South Korea’s top box office draw of the year. He was reprising his role as Detective Ma Seok-do from the 2017 film The Outlaws, which spawned the Roundup franchise, a.k.a. the Crime City series, all starring Lee as Detective Ma. For the upcoming fourth installment, Heo is directing Lee again. The Roundup: Punishment will be Heo’s sophomore directorial effort and is slated to premiere at next month’s Berlin International Film Festival.

The best way to describe Don Lee is thicc. Also known as Ma Dong-seok, he has a massive frame with a solid barrel chest and swole guns. Many action stars claim to have martial prowess, but Lee is the real deal. When he wasn’t acting, he’s been a personal trainer for professional MMA fighters and an amateur arm wrestler. He became the president of the Korea Armwrestling Federation in 2018, the same year he starred in Champion, a sports comedy film about arm wrestling. With his jaded, seen-too-much eyes, and his gorilla-like physique, Lee Is built for action. Like most action stars, his acting range is limited, but no one in the industry now can sell a punch like him. When Lee punches a villain so hard that he flies across the room, it’s believable. 

Into the Badlands

Unlike Concrete Utopia, Badland Hunters doesn’t aspire to make any social commentary. There’s no way this gets submitted to the Oscars. It’s a straight-up post-apocalypse actioner, complete with a mad scientist, zombie-like mutants, black comedy, and plenty of sanguineous ultraviolence. Lee plays Nam-san, a hunter who bags meat to trade for other commodities in a makeshift village in what was once the bus district. 

Like many of Lee’s other films, he is coupled with a younger handsome partner who serves as a comic relief foil. In Badland Hunters that partner is teenage Choi Ji-wan (Lee Jun-young), a fellow hunter. Ji-wan is an archer (South Korea loves archery, having excelled in the sport at the Olympics since they began participating in the games). Nam-san uses a machete with a jagged back edge. In the rugged badlands, the two hunters protect a teenage girl named Su-na (Roh Jeong-eui) who gets kidnapped by Dr. Yang’s followers. Joining them on their quest is Lee Eun-ho (An Ji-hye), a special forces sergeant hoping to rescue her comrades who are also being held captive by Dr. Yang and his people. 

Dr. Yang is a classic mad scientist, replete with a blood-stained lab coat, maniacally injecting hypodermics of glowing green goo into his unlucky victims. This results in death or a transformation into zombie-like creatures that can only be stopped by decapitation. Seeing Lee go up against zombies recalls Train to Busan, but again, the filmmakers hope to make a distinction. “Some people say zombies appear in our film, but the truth is, there are no zombies,” Lee has claimed. “It features a different kind of creature.”

Ultimately though, it doesn’t matter how derivative Badland Hunters might be. It’s all about the action. Lee and Heo made a concerted effort to take the fight choreography to the next level. The action is tight and dynamic with Lee and Jun-young’s characters both delivering some bloodsoaked melees. The cinematography is overly frenetic, subtracting somewhat from the choreographic complexity, but a quick eye can still follow the action.

Toward the end, Lee delivers a machete hallway fight that is signature to his fighting style—powerful, high impact, and mercilessly brutal. That scene alone is sure to please longtime Lee fans and newbies to his unique brand of hyper violence. 

Badland Hunters is available to stream on Netflix on Jan. 26, 2024.

The post Badland Hunters Review: Netflix Shows Why Don Lee Is Korea’s Most Kick-Ass Action Hero appeared first on Den of Geek.

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