A handful of messy, screw-up cops battle legions of impeccable, organized gangsters for the hearts and minds of Korean youth in Kang Woo-suk’s third “Public Enemy” go-round. A return to form for the hugely popular franchise after its disappointing sophomore sortie, pic, well-scripted by Jang Jin, has the cohesiveness its predecessor so sadly lacked. But the film’s true joy lies in watching immensely talented Seol Gyeong-gu reprise his renegade cop lead, ably supported by a rogue’s gallery of second bananas. Though it’s done boffo business at home since opening in mid-June, the character-driven, comedy-heavy faceoff still might not translate offshore.
Natty villain Lee Won Sool (Jeong Ju-yeong, in an atypical baddie role) and scruffy hero Kang (Seol) establish their respective positions right out of the starting gate. Lee need only raise an eyebrow to have a 17-year-old student rush forward and knife a recalcitrant associate amid hanging sides of beef (“You’ll feel better in a minute,” an imperturbable Lee murmurs to his victim as he bleeds to death). In contrast, Kang, herded by 9-year-old daughter Mimi to “Bring Your Dad to School Day,” finds the entire class thinks gangsters are way cooler than cops, their opinion vindicated as an angry Kang proceeds to browbeat his diminutive audience, much to Mimi’s mortification.
Fed up, broke and unable to get a loan, Kang vainly tries to quit the force, his letter of resignation tossed on a pile of like missives by his supportive, long-suffering captain (Kang Shin-il, in a quietly compelling performance). But a new case, involving the recruitment of high school students into the corporate ranks as cold-blooded killers, draws Kang back into the game. Soon he is happily harassing Lee, up close and personal; getting badly beaten is a small price to pay for tweaking Lee’s unflappable cool.
In familiar (and welcome) “Public Enemy” territory, pic trades visually on the vast differences in power and esteem commanded by the two men: Solo Kang is forever out on some seriocomic limb, while minions materialize as soon as Lee swings into view. For once, Kang has no problem convincing his colleagues of the rich CEO’s guilt, given Lee’s gangster past — instead, the entire police force’s credibility is on the line as they strive to steer teens away from crime.
Crime pays even after the fact, in the case of returning comic-relief ex-gangster An-Soo (the hilariously rubber-faced Lee Mun-shik), ducking and deferential at the sight of Kang (old habits die hard), though now completely legit with a string of karaoke bars.
If the adult world teems with colorful characters, helmer Kang finds himself on shakier ground tonally with his uneven cast of juves as they vacillate between schoolyard hijinks and corporate skullduggery. Finally, however, any concerns for Korea’s youth pale before the anticipation of whatever insanely self-destructive but oddly effective move Kang will pull off next.
Tech credits are aces.