Review: Despite 'Squid Game' and 'Parasite' stars, 'Emergency Declaration' can't stick its landing

Despite the presence of two of the country’s biggest stars in an airline-disaster thriller, “Emergency Declaration” doesn’t look or feel like a typical Korean blockbuster. It’s shot in a handheld, vérité-inspired style and effectively generates tension. It generally avoids the histrionics that are so often the genre's baggage in the cinema of most nations — until an emotionally manipulative denouement makes for a rough landing.

Smart, but not movie-hero-style, detective In-ho (Song Kang-ho, the dad in “Parasite"), sees his beloved spouse, Hye-yoon (Woo Mi-hwa), off to Hawaii. Single dad Jae-hyuk (superstar Lee Byung-hun, seen by American audiences most recently as the Front Man in “Squid Game”) takes his young daughter on the same flight. Then there’s handsome, young, uptight Jin-seok (Im Si-wan), who shows up without a ticket, asking to board whatever flight has the most people on it. That can’t be good.

Indeed, Jin-seok has bad intentions that could endanger the lives of everyone on that Hawaii flight, and potentially many, many others as well — it's a virus-related plot sure to make viewers particularly uncomfortable in this pandemic age (in a movie ironically delayed repeatedly by COVID). Writer-director Han Jae-rim expertly unspools the story's multiple threads, as In-ho uncovers clues on the ground and Jae-hyuk, also no fighter, discovers the danger in the air. The performances are uniformly solid, especially by the two leads, and the generally low-key cinematic style keeps us in the pocket of the story.

There are a few suspicious coincidences (a certain passenger just happens to be a pilot, etc.) and the film banks hard in its climactic moments toward a contrived-feeling stab at tear-jerking nobility. It’s a shame, because that clumsy conclusion pulls us out of the predicament, defusing much of the tension with its artificiality.

“Emergency Declaration” received a special screening at Cannes last year, and then faced additional COVID-related release delays before finally taking off in Korea this month (it's already among the year's top five grossers there). Apart from some not-great CGI, it does have some of the "event" elements that would draw people back to theaters, though it doesn't stick the landing.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.