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Ballerina Review

October 12, 2023 | Posted by Rob Stewart
Ballerina Image Credit: Yoo Eun Mi/Netflix
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Ballerina Review  

John Wick changed everything.

When Chad Stahelski and Keanu Reeves came together in the mid-2010’s to film the slick revenge-action flick John Wick, do you think they had even an inkling of an idea what they were about to accomplish?

A hit? Sure, maybe they banked on that. They had between twenty and thirty million dollars to throw at a bankable, if scattershot in his success, action star in Reeves, and probably they recognized the film would be a hit against that budget. But did they imagine three sequels, altogether earning a billion dollars globally? A television mini-series spin-off? Even more movies to come down the pike, some just spin-offs of the universe? A complete reinvigoration and renewed interest in everything Keanu would touch going forward?

Image Credit: 20th Century Fox TV

PICTURED: The actual, honest-to-god director of the John Wick movies, and I love that with every ounce of my heart.

But forget even all that. Maybe they somehow saw even THAT level of success. But did they imagine their little $30 million dollar flick was going to change Hollywood and inspire dozens of rip-offs?

Nobody, Sisu, Kate, Violent Night, Atomic Blonde, and more. These movies likely don’t exist without Wick paving the way and proving that the world has a taste for hyper-violent, stylized revenge movies starring a brooding but likable protagonist killing his way up a ladder of goons until they get to the top and avenge their losses.

Some have certainly done the Wickian formula better than others. Such is life when you are cashing in on the success of another franchise with a “clone” movie. And the great ones have more than proven themselves worth not being considered a knock-off of a hit, but rather as a stand-alone, high quality homage. Nobody in particular and starring Emmy winner Bob Odenkirk was a fantastically fun outing!

Others have been more cash-grab attempts at aping a hit formula. They can’t all be stand-outs.

So which is when it comes to the recent Netflix release of the Korean action film Ballerina, itself even sharing a name with an upcoming John Wick universe spin-off?

Ballerina is the story of Ok-Ju, a nebulously trained and employed security official, as she works to avenge the suicide of her best friend (and possibly, if ambiguously, more than that), Min-Hee. After receiving a late night phone call from Min-Hee, Ok-Ju arrives at the former’s apartment and finds her body, wrists slashed in the bathtub. She has left her friend a note asking for vengeance.

From there, Ok-Ju enters a seedy world of drug use, sexual assault, and blackmail as she looks into the story of why Min-Hee, an aspiring ballerina (hence the title) would do such a thing. She quickly comes across the menacing Choi, the drug dealer who had Min-Hee under his thumb. He drugged Min-Hee, filmed himself taking advantage of her, and used that tape to try to keep her enslaved to his cabal at the threat of ruining her life with the footage if she disobeyed.

And from there… it’s the John Wick formula! You know how these things go by now!


+ What many John Wick homages have in common–and Ballerina is no different–are fun, extended action set pieces. Characters and scenes trade off hand-to-hand combat for gunplay, and–in this instance–even the use of a flame-thrower, as they brawl and scrape and shoot across the runtime of the film.

Ok-Ju’s battles with Choi and others are typically a lot of fun, and the film balances frenetic fight scenes full of fast-paced cuts with other moments of longer takes where the stars are much more impressive. A hotel room battle between Ok-Ju and Choi is probably the high point of the action scenes, as Ok-Ju, armed with a knife, tries to get the drop on her foe before finding him more formidable than she anticipated.

+ Ballerina‘s third act measures unpredictability (Choi’s boss, a menacing crime boss who figures to be perhaps the ultimate big bad with which Ok-Ju has to do battle, is humorously easily dispatched, freeing Choi up to be the final threat yet again) with delightful predictability (Choi’s final fate you see coming a mile away after Ok-Ju buys her cache of weapons). It also features some phenomenal action… and most of the film’s extended one-cut set pieces as Ok-Ju battles her way through minions to get the man responsible for Min-Hee’s death.

On the one hand, Ballerina knows what you are here for and doesn’t waste much time. It gets in, tells its story and shows off its brutality, and gets out in just around 90 minutes. On the other hand, the story is detail bankrupt. All we get about Choi to show us he is a physical threat to our Wickian lead is a quick montage of his working out. All we get on Ok-Ju’s training is her exposition to Min-Hee in a flashback, and then a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment where she talks to her former boss before going off to buy some guns.

If you are here for the action, Ballerina delivers that, sure. But if you want more than just the barest of minimum details of who these characters are, what dancing meant to Min-Hee, what Min-Hee meant to Ok-Ju, and more… well, Ballerina doesn’t really have a lot to offer.

Choi as the big bad of the film is undermined multiple times in scenes where he is cowed by his crime lord boss. There are two moments where Choi is physically and mentally humiliated by his boss, and the latter even makes at least one or two comments about how Choi is so easily commanded about. Now, if Choi had eventually been the one to kill his boss and show he was the threat the movie wants him to be, that would be fine. But he doesn’t! Ok-Ju kills the boss, and that leaves Choi as her ultimate foe just… by default. When the movie spends multiple scenes castrating its “Big Bad”, that leaves any final confrontation feeling a bit empty.

The final score: review Average
The 411
It's nothing you haven't seen before, but it's an intense sprint to the finish line with some solid viciousness and combat. The story is all empty calories that barely serves to move the characters from scene to scene, and that's its biggest weakness, but for what it is? It's perfectly fine.

article topics :

Ballerina (Netflix), Rob Stewart