The Legend Returns in “My Wife Is a Gangster 2” but not in the way most may expect. Auds primed for an all-out actionfest, following the 2001 hit (now getting the remake treatment at Miramax) about a sap who unwittingly marries a tough femme crime boss, are likely to feel let down by this sequel, though on its own terms it mostly works fine. Local B.O. in September was healthy at 1.8 million admissions (about $10 million), but way down on the original’s 5 million tix. Pic could work offshore as a double-box ancillary release for buffs.
Sequel broadly follows the first in structure, with a big gang battle to kick things off, variations on a single theme throughout the midsection, and a teasing finale (here with Chinese star Zhang Ziyi cameoing as a butch Shanghai mob queen) supposedly prepping the way for Part 3. Instead of advancing the character established in Part 1, the film uses an amnesia plot that keeps any new personality wrinkles on ice for most of the going.
There’s certainly enough plot drop-out between the two films to justify a third movie, in which case the current one would form a central divertimento in a trilogy. However, with recently married star Shin Eun-gyeong now pregnant, and no script written, fans will have to bide their time for at least another year.
Aforesaid gang battle, on top of a neon-lit building, sees gang boss Cha Eun-jin (Shin) narrowly escaping death, waking up with amnesia and being rescued by middle-aged widower Yun Hae-cheol (TV star Park Jun-gyu), owner of a Chinese fusion eatery outside Seoul. Two years later, and Eun-jin is working for him as a tireless delivery girl, driven by an energy she can’t explain and occasionally revealing martial arts skills that come from some blanked-out past.
With Eun-jin’s husband nowhere to be seen — one mystery that could be explained in Part 3 — Hae-cheol itches to get his hands on the attractive, but sexually neuter, young woman. The extra comic riff here is Eun-jin’s obsessive attempts to recover her memory, once by plugging herself directly into the electric supply.
Like Angelina Jolie in “Tomb Raider,” Shin is now a star in complete command of her role — even if that role, and the vehicle as a whole, doesn’t fit tidily into any existing genre. Her gang boss is a blank-faced, fragile-looking character whose appeal comes more from keeping her steel in reserve. Pic’s humor comes from the joke being on her much of the time, as a sexually ambivalent figure in a macho world.
Shin’s curiously sexy study in controlled power fuels most of the first hour, in a succession of comic incidents where Eun-jin rights wrongs — teaching a foul-mouthed stall-owner a lesson in manners, defending Hae-cheol’s teenage daughter (Ryu Hyeon-gyeong) from school bullies, and warding off amorous advances from locals. Humor ranges from acceptable to over-broad, and pic would benefit from tightening.
A plot gradually comes into view as Eun-jin’s old nemesis, White Shark (Jang Sae-jin, encoring), tracks her down at the same time as she’s being publicly lauded for standing up to some property developers. Final reels deliver some OK action, though in general, the fights are not on the level of the original’s.
If “Wife 2” shows a stronger propensity toward character and situational humor, that’s probably because the helming reins have been handed to Jeong Heung-sun, who turned out last year’s hugely successful “Marrying the Mafia,” about an ordinary guy who’s forced to marry a mobster’s daughter. Jeong’s helming is tighter here than in “Mafia,” but at times during the midsection, it’s only Shin’s focused performance (and wonderful use of double-take expressions) that prevents the film from turning into another Korean neighborhood ensembler.
Park, cast against type as the romantic restaurateur, plays well with Shin, the two sharing an affecting scene where both get drunk at a night market. Ryu makes an impression as the problem daughter, and Choi Eun-ju returns entertainingly as the brassy Sherry, who tried to teach Eun-jin feminine wiles in the first movie.
Technically, all departments are smooth, with fractionally more gloss than the original.