This weekend's The Magnificent Seven is a mixed bag of dude-ranch banter (courtesy of True Detective's Nic Pizzolatto) and six-barrel shoot-outs (unloaded by Olympus Has Fallen director Antoine Fuqua). At times the movie feels like a half-baked excuse to dress Denzel Washington up in a gambler cowboy hat, but dressing Denzel Washington up in a gambler cowboy hat is a half-baked excuse worth making.
The Oscar-winning actor may broker Mexican standoffs like a John Grisham lawyer, but he's not even the sharpest gunslinger of the wild bunch. That honor goes to Byung-hun Lee, the unsung hero of The Magnificent Seven. As Billy Rocks, a Chinese assassin who's quick on the trigger and even quicker on the hilt, the South Korean actor is soft-spoken and ruthless, a gruff, comedic partner for Ethan Hawke's tall-tale-telling rifleman.
It's a star-making performance -- or would be, if Byung-hun Lee were a Chris Pratt-like sitcom actor stealing the action movie spotlight. Unfortunately, he's just one of the most resilient actors on the planet.
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Byung-hun Lee has been a Hollywood player for the last seven years, playing... the "soft-spoken and ruthless" fighter. In the two G.I. Joe movies, he played the determined ninja Storm Shadow. In RED 2, he played the determined enemy of elderly spies. In Terminator Genisys, he played a determined robot chasing Arnold Schwarzenegger and Emilia Clarke. Sense a trend? The Magnificent Seven sticks to the typecasting. Byung-hun Lee, a pro, primps his mustache, adjusts his hat, and nails the archetypical Wild West outsider role like Alan Ladd. So why isn't this guy a star?
He is one in South Korea. Byung-hun Lee broke out after appearing in Joint Security Area, a South-North Korean border thriller from acclaimed director Park Chan-wook (Oldboy, Stoker), which he followed with an award-winning stint on the TV series Beautiful Days (savvy streamers can find the show in the nooks of American internet). Global attention -- or, global attention from those looking around the globe for exciting new talent -- came with three collaborations from South Korean auteur Kim Jee-woon: the crime saga A Bittersweet Life, the Western (and clear Magnificent Seven inspiration) The Good, the Bad, and the Weird, and I Saw the Devil, among the most violent, relentless, and powerful revenge thrillers I've ever seen. Each provided Byung-hun Lee with distinct characters, ranging from smooth operator to soft-spoken and ruthless fighter.
He arrived stateside with a honed skill. This clip bottles it all up:
Byung-hun Lee made his English-language debut opposite Josh Hartnett in the 2000 noir thriller I Come with the Rain, and entered the Hollywood fray in G.I. Joe: Rise of the Cobra, facing off against Channing Tatum with more gusto than a movie based on an action figure line deserves. A decade later, he has a foot in two massive movie industries, a face his dedicated Tumblr acolytes slap on anything and everything (Byung-hun Lee-branded mug, anyone?), and enough momentum to play fifth or sixth fiddle in American blockbusters.
With Southeast Asia playing an increasingly vital part in worldwide box office goals, there's a pressure for a nonwhite Brad Pitt to emerge from the Hollywood talent pool. Byung-hun Lee is the obvious answer, and the evidence is accessible. See his 2002 body-swap thriller Addicted on Hulu, Joint Security Area and Terminator Genisys on Amazon Prime, Kim Jee-woon's wild Western The Good, the Bad, and the Weird on Netflix, and The Magnificent Seven, currently in theaters. Maybe buy your Byung-hun Lee mug in advance -- you'll be one of us by the end of your marathon.
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