EMERGNCY DECLARATION wants to take you on a hyper-roller coaster ride with an airborne tale of bio-terrorism, and it does. A worthy throwback to the disaster films of a generation or so ago, it is the perfect action film for the age of COVID, and a thrill-packed time that will wring every emotion out of you during its over 2-hour running time.
There is not a wasted moment in that running time, either.
The premise is a time-honored one. A packed flight from Seoul to Honolulu becomes the backdrop for melodramatic personal stories, and a look at how people, individually and as governments, react under extreme pressure from a threat for which there is no protocol. In this case, a homicidal young man, Ryu Jin-seok (Yim Si-wan) with an inchoate grudge against the world and access to a killer virus. He unleashes it on a flight that includes a policeman’s wife, a father (Lee Byung-hun) taking his eczema stricken pre-teen daughter (Kim Bo-min) to a place with clear air despite his own fear of flying, and a chief flight attendant (Kim So-jin) who has been considering retiring. There is also a history between the father and the flight’s first officer (Kim Nam-gil), and a passenger who puts his own survival ahead of anyone else’s. On the ground, there is that policeman. Sergeant In-ho (Song Kang-ho), who catches the call about an uploaded video promising a terrorist attack on a plane from Seoul that day, and Sook-hee (Jeon Do-yeon) the government Land Minister trying to cut through the official bureaucracy that requires “careful analysis” before taking any action. Time being of the essence with the plane’s fuel running out not having much if any bearing on the situation.
This is a textbook example of how to make a film a disaster film. Jin-seok, gliding with affected nonchalance and vicious tongue, is a creepy creature with a sinister smile on his bland face and a manner that puts people on edge even before he singles out the father and daughter as his targets. Yim’s performance transcends language. Even without subtitles, his affect is bone-chilling. He infuses the prelude where we meet the characters about to be imperiled with the right sinister note.
As for those characters, they are decidedly normal. The policeman is a rumpled everyman having a non-fight with his wife (So-jin Kim) who has taken off for a Hawaiian vacation without him. Tired of waiting for him to find time to go with her, she has ditched him while leaving 15-days’ worth of ox-bone soup to tide him over, and strict instructions to not order in. The little girl’s father comes across as a sweet non-entity, fussing over his daughter, and having just a little too much to drink before the plane has traveled very far. It’s when the plot kicks in that they all rise to the occasion heroically. Even mom.
No one takes the terrorist threat seriously until Sergeant In-ho decides to investigate the video, mostly because he needs to take a walk after realizing he’s been unceremoniously abandoned. Of course, it turns out that the suspect’s dank and dark apartment holds a grisly surprise, alarming In-ho and setting the government machinery into slow, klunky motion. As the situation develops on the ground and in the air, the general confusion about the best way to save the 150 people on board the plane becomes as dangerous as the virus, while the personal dramas add to the tension.
And this is a cinematically nasty virus with unsightly lesions and blood spurting from various orifices. That’s nothing to the way writer/director Han Jae-rim puts the audience into the action. When the pilot is stricken (of course he’s stricken), the way passengers are tossed around the cabin becomes an immersive experience that culminates in the cockpit where we see the ocean coming straight for us. On the ground, a car chase offers a similar, though less aquatic, experience coupled with a fiendishly funny twist. Nothing matches, though, the impact of experiencing the way so many nations turn away the flight in order to save themselves from a killer virus. They aren’t wrong, but they aren’t right, either.
Naturally, by the end, a passenger will have taken over flying the airplane, an American multi-national company will have its cover-up exposed, and a national uproar of Korea’s population will add to the confusion fed by the news media whipping viewers into a fear frenzy. By contrast, that Land Minister, the audience surrogate for reacting to the human fear and government impotence at hand, voices compassion and reason while being as tough or tougher than the men around her.
EMERGENCY DECLARATION avoids saccharine while still tugging on our heartstrings. Barely giving us time to catch our breath while it careens through its plot. Fearlessly going over the top, it crams as much action into its running time as cinematically possible, and never worries about going too far. Thank goodness.