A needlessly complicated but otherwise Hollywood-slick indictment of corruption at every level of Korea’s infrastructure, “The Unjust” leaves no cog in the machinery unbent. Cops, businessmen, press and public prosecutors alike let the ends justify the means in this elaborate web of broken rules, centering on a high-profile murder case so desperately in need of closing that police brass order an ambitious detective to find someone, guilty or not, to take the rap. Pic should travel well on the genre circuit, thanks to director Ryoo Seung-wan’s Western-styled approach, garnished by a handful of distinctly Korean action scenes.
Good luck identifying a clear good guy in “The Unjust.” The film’s two main rivals both have the law on their side, but abuse their positions for their own ends: Hwang Jung-min plays Choi Cheol-gi, a cop who agrees to cook the city’s highest profile investigation after being passed over for a promotion one too many times. As top prosecutor Joo Yang, Ryoo Seung-bum oozes the cocky entitlement that comes with the territory, while compromising his integrity by rubbing elbows with corrupt real-estate developer Kim Yang-su (Jo Yeong-jin).
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When Choi unwittingly sets back a major business deal by investigating Kim, Joo vows to make things uncomfortable for the officer, instructing his team to dig up dirt on Choi, who picked a particularly bad time to make an enemy of the prosecutor. Not only has the police department just launched its own internal investigation on the cop, but Choi has agreed to stick his neck out after the commissioner general (Cheon Ho-jin) directly orders him to deliver a patsy for a highly publicized serial killer case.
If the setup sounds rather convoluted, that’s just the half of it, as screenwriter Park Hoon-jung piles on the twists and digressions, including a karaoke-bar confrontation between Choi and his deadbeat brother-in-law (Song Sae-byeok) that seems like little more than an excuse for a good Korean ass-kicking. Though some of the minutiae may be lost in translation (the subtitles featured at the Berlin Film Festival were distressingly spotty), shot for shot, director Ryoo’s aesthetic follows the template of a Hollywood studio project, owing largely to stellar contributions by “Oldboy” d.p. Chung Chung-hoon and composer Cho Young-wuk, whose terrific score alternates between ticking-clock-style suspense and variations on a grand recurring theme.
Ryoo — considered an action prodigy in Korea, a reputation that began with his 2000 debut “Die Bad” — delivers more restrained fight scenes here than in previous films, though the altercations get satisfyingly loonier as the pic unfolds. For the climax, he allows Choi to come completely unhinged, orchestrating a bonkers showdown that expertly blends tension, tragedy and incredibly dark humor.
In a stroke of poetic justice, this final reckoning unfolds at the building site that has been giving Choi and Joo so much grief. While Joo has taken sides with Kim, Choi has cast his lot with Kim’s direct competition, criminal-turned-construction tycoon Jang Seok-gu (Yoo Hae-jin), a bad-news ally with just the right connections to help the police find an “actor” to take the fall in their murder investigation.
It would probably be easier for the cops to find the real serial killer than go to so much trouble to make their “unjust” arrest. But Ryoo doesn’t much care about the investigation itself. Instead, the helmer focuses his energy on establishing nuclear-scale hubris across his ensemble of actors, setting up secret meetings all over Seoul, ranging from under bridges to the tops of skyscrapers, then watching the characters squirm when their best-laid plans go wrong.