Based on true events from Korean history, and smartly crafted by writer-director Kim Han-min into a thrilling action film, The Admiral has something of the feel of old Saturday-matinee serials. In a prologue that plays out under the opening credits, disgraced admiral Yi Sun-shin (Choi Min-sik) is relieved of military duty and then tortured under orders from the king for reasons not yet made clear. By the time the film proper kicks in, Sun-shin has been summoned to lead a fleet of 12 ships against Japan's encroaching fleet of 300. Given orders to surrender, he instead crafts an ingenious defense plan that -- if successful -- would be a classic David vs. Goliath victory. Fast-paced and gorgeously shot in rich, lush colors, the film is filled with lavish costumes, a bombastic score that fits the material, expertly staged battle scenes, and fine acting from the ensemble cast. Lest anyone be unclear who the villains are, the Japanese characters largely speak in husky snarls.
There's a nice bit of character study in the mix, mapped out through both power-plays and fractious infighting on both sides, as well as unabashedly sentimental domestic moments between husbands and wives, fathers and sons. One glitch in this otherwise pitch-perfect film is the occasional lapse into contemporary vernacular by whoever translated the English subtitles -- unless, of course, the phrase "I'm the shit" is actually authentic to Korea circa 1597.