It’s really not surprising that since the banking quagmire that plunged much of the world into chaos in 2008, financial types and co-called captains of industry have made inroads as modern movie villains. In that light it’s also no surprise that the latest action-comedy from high-octane writer-director Ryoo Seung-wan has waded into those same thematic waters. Ryoo is a master of male angst (Crying Fist) and aggression (The City of Violence) and is just as adept at his mini-portraits of the casual institutional corruption and/or unbending red tape (most obvious in The Unjust) that plague Korean society. After a brief detour into more traditional espionage thrillers with The Berlin File in 2013 (though it has its share of angst and aggression) Ryoo is back to more workaday crime in Veteran. A massive box office hit at home in Korea with nearly $80 million and 12 million admissions (and counting), Veteran should make for fine counter-programming in North America in the way Hong Kong action films did in the 1990s when it gets limited release in September. Response in Asia should be strong on the basis of the much of the cast’s popularity and on Ryoo’s track record, which will carry it in other overseas markets.
The story starts with veteran police inspector Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min, Ode to My Father) busting up a Russian car smuggling ring in an entirely elaborate and distinctly unacceptable policing fashion. Seo and squad partner Bong (sparky newcomer Jang Yoon-ju) pose as a couple of obnoxious 1 percenters buying a BMW to lure the thieves into stealing their ride. They do, and that leads to a showdown on the docks and the film’s first throwdown, all of seven minutes in. It’s a cleverly choreographed scene designed to tell us that Seo doesn’t always go by the book (natch) but he gets the job done and doesn’t compromise his integrity.
A solid and acutely modern cops and robbers thriller.
Meanwhile, long haul trucker Bae (Jung Woong-in, Fists of Legend), who helped out Seo and his crew with the car thieves, finds himself in a dangerous confrontation with the subcontractor, Jeon (Jung Man-sik, Miracle in Cell No. 7), working for the large and clearly unethical Sin Jin conglomerate that’s withholding wages from its workers because they formed a union. Bae and Jeon face off at the behest of a Sin Jin heir, Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in, Thread of Lies). Jo is beyond reprehensible, a perfect cartoon amalgam of how the Korean public currently views the elites that run the country. Bae winds up dead and Seo starts sniffing around, convinced something untoward has happened and vowing to “get” Jo. Stymieing him every step of the way is Jo’s right hand, vice president Choi Dae-woong (Yoo Hae-jin, Moss), who’s not the meek patsy he appears to be. Of course, this being a cop comedy, Seo has a put-upon boss, Oh (Oh Dal-su, Assassination) who has to find way to either corral Seo or cover for him. To Ryoo’s credit, he’s not on the verge of retirement.
Veteran has several things going for it that separate it from its ilk, even as it plays well within the parameters of the genre. Action and comedy have proven to be a winning formula for decades, but Ryoo’s penchant for subtle absurdity is more pronounced than it’s ever been. The local thug at the port negotiating his own set-up in the opening sequence and Seo and his bosses trying to out badass each other with their wounds are just two of several moments of the kind of bonkers levity that can undo a story when not balanced just so. Ryoo, Hwang, Jung and Oh in particular manage to pull it off. Underpinning the entire film, however, is the felonious clash between protecting corporate interests, ethics and upper class entitlement that really gets the narrative rolling. It’s what toggles the film between rote action and more dramatic moments that slow things down (not necessarily bad). When Seo’s social worker wife confronts him at work after Choi tried to bribe her, it’s Ryoo’s way of illustrating how deep cronyism, corruption and the obsession with connections go and how much they impact John and Jane Q. Public.
Veteran is a fast-paced (though still a bit long), tight thriller with suitably brutal close-quarters fisticuffs from action director Jung Doo-hong and cinematographer Choi Young-hwan and polished technical specs—none of which would work as well as it does if not for Hwang’s central performance. Hwang has a relatable everyman quality to him that complements the righteous anger (without the histrionics he brought to The Unjust) he harnesses in his pursuit of Jo. And as Jo, Yoo uses his pretty-boy gloss to his advantage, and appears to be having a grand time chewing scenery as a violent, abusive, dog-murdering, spoiled brat who wants his share of daddy’s money. Is it over the top? Way over it, but Ryoo makes no apology for creating anything other than a symbolic caricature to be dismantled.
Production company: Filmmakers R&K
Cast: Hwang Jung-min, Yoo Ah-in, Oh Dal-su, Yoo Hae-jin, Jung Man-sik, Jang Yoon-ju, Jung Woong-in, Chun Ho-jin, Kim Shi-hoo, Oh Dae-hwan, Song Young-chan
Director: Ryoo Seung-wan
Screenwriter: Ryoo Seung-wan
Producer: Cho Sung-Min
Executive producer: Jeong Tae-sung
Director of photography: Choi Young-hwan
Production designer: Jo Hwa-sung
Costume designer: Cho Sang-kyung
Editor: Kim Sang-beom, Kim Jae-bum
Music: Bang Joon-seok
World sales: CJ Entertainment
No rating, 124 minutes