A twisting, breakneck tale of spy craft and betrayal, “The Berlin File” is an action-oriented contemporary espionage thriller in which agents from North Korea and South Korea attempt to outwit and overmatch each other in Berlin while dodging the CIA, Mossad and Arab agents.
Written and directed by Ryoo Seung-wan, the film is somehow both nimble and a bit lumbering, as crack set pieces are placed against dense plotting and moments of languorous character development. As an agent from the North (Ha Jung-woo) goes head-to-head with an agent from the South (Han Suk-kyu), they are both thrown by a North Korean operative (Ryoo Seung-bum) with a taste for mayhem and an agenda of his own.
Unexpectedly for a full-on action picture, “Berlin File” subtly captures the loneliness the agents feel, alienated from even supposed comrades, divided by relentless shifts in loyalty and punishing paranoia. Though there seems to be an allegory of North-South relations somewhere within the story’s provisional alliances, the filmmakers leave it to lurk in the background. Overall, the film leans a little too heavily on the iconography of the “Bourne” pictures, borrowing specific locations around Berlin but also assorted other ideas and settings, which leaves it feeling at times like some combination of lazy and expedient.
There is something sharp, exciting and more original tucked within “The Berlin File” — and it is in moments a sleek, crackling film — but it all feels somehow misshapen. That it ends with a brazen set-up for a sequel is no surprise, maybe even providing Ryoo a chance to make a film more fully his own.
“The Berlin File.” No MPAA rating; in Korean, English and German, with English subtitles. Running time: 2 hours. At the CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles.