A change of locale and a couple of tweaks are all that stand in the way of a U.S. remake of “Jail Breakers,” a high-concept action comedy from South Korea that plays like a more intelligent offspring of “Police Academy.” Yarn about two convicts who decide to break back into a prison to take advantage of a government pardon is a tightly honed, laugh-‘n’-tears winner that, following its Pusan fest preem, has since opened gangbusters, setting a first-weekend record for a local feature this year. Total haul in its initial frame was over 700,000 admissions.
Original screen story by Kim Hyeong-jun was penned some five years ago, but only after the success of the comedies “Attack the Gas Station!” (1999) and “Kick the Moon” (2001) did helmer Kim Sang-jin and regular scripter Park Jeong-woo get around to realizing the project. Pic has the same scabrous anti-authoritarian tone as their previous collaborations — a relatively new development in Korean comedy — plus a richness of character and invention that quickly takes the movie way beyond its basic concept.
Film is the first production under Kim Sang-jin’s own shingle, Director’s Home Pictures, though financing is again from conglom Cinema Service, whose head, Kang Woo-seok, takes an exec producer credit. In this, his sixth feature, Kim definitively takes his place as the commercially savvy Kang’s most gifted protégé.
Casting top lines two of Korea’s hottest actors, Seol Gyeong-gu (“Peppermint Candy,” “Oasis”) and Cha Seung-weon (the teacher in “Kick the Moon”), as two smalltime crooks who meet in stir. Seol plays Yu Jae-pil, a con man originally sent down for 14 months but whose bungled escape attempts (which open the movie in cartoonish style) have led to an eight-year sentence. After converting to religion to shorten his internment, Jae-pil again decides to break out when his trashy g.f., Gyeong-sun (Song Yun-ah), suddenly tells him she’s going to marry someone else on Independence Day, Aug. 15.
The hysterical Jae-pil manages to parlay his way along with the steely Choi Mu-seok (Cha, quietly stealing the acting honors), who’s spent six years digging a tunnel with a metal spoon. At the 30-minute mark, the pair manage to get to freedom, stealing a taxi in the pouring rain and hightailing it to Seoul.
However, as soon as they arrive the following morning, they read a newspaper headline that they’re on a list of government pardons to celebrate Independence Day. When they phone the prison governor to vent their wrath, he says he simply forgot to tell them; but as their escape could cost the governor his job, everyone does a deal whereby bygones will be bygones if the two cons quickly haul ass back into jail.
First, however, Jae-pil kidnaps his g.f. in her wedding dress, which doesn’t sit well with her future husband, a cop. Meanwhile, two senators decide on a sudden tour of the prison, at the same time as the joint’s resident psycho organizes a mass riot. In addition, Jae-pil, Mu-seok and Gyeong-sun find themselves pursued not only by the jilted cop and the stolen taxi’s owner but also by two undercover officers sent by the prison governor to make sure the cons return unimpeded.
Played at a brisk rather than frantic pace, and cross-cutting between events outside and inside the prison, Park’s script is kept on the boil by plenty of physical incident in which nothing goes right for anybody longer than a few minutes. As the plot becomes increasingly tangled, orchestration of characters and events is cleverly balanced.
Park’s script also twists the knife during an anarchic development in the prison involving the officers and politicos, though the idea will resonate less with non-Koreans. Though none of the large cast of characters is remotely believable in real terms, they do evolve throughout the movie, with even the annoying Jae-pil (initially played by Seol at a hysterical pitch) becoming bearable. Final reels have a genuinely joyful feel, though the coda is not as punchy as may be expected.
Physical business is neatly handled — apart from a slightly cheesy flying-car stunt — and the pic’s sizable budget is all up on the screen. Editing by the experienced Go Im-pyo is trim. However, color on print caught had a rather washed-out look that was not up to usual high standards of Korean processing. Original title means “Independence Day Special Pardon.”