Bristling with rough-and-ready action and a titanic clash of wills, the police thriller-comedy “Veteran” will have audiences wholeheartedly rooting for its intransigent cop hero to take down a corporate princeling for abusing his privilege. South Korean helmer Ryoo Seung-wan (“The Berlin File”), himself a veteran of action blockbusters, delivers honest-to-goodness entertainment that pulses with nonstop adrenaline. With its black-and-white stand on class divides and social injustice, the film is unabashedly crowd-pleasing — but so what, if its heart is in the right place? Commercially, “Veteran” has been on a roll, topping the Korean B.O. for weeks and grossing about $84.8 million to date. Its Toronto fest preem and wide international rollout should be cause for excitement for Asian genre buffs.
The film starts off in a happy-go-lucky mood as Det. Seol Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min, “Ode to My Father”), from the Seoul Metropolitan Crime Bureau, bluffs his way through a routine mission to bust a gang of car smugglers. To catch the gang in transaction with their Russian buyers, he hires a truck to go down to Busan, befriending the humble driver, Bae (Jung Woong-in), and his young son during the ride. Even though Busan piers are featured in Korean gangster movies as frequently as the Trevi Fountain is in Italian romances, Ryoo’s movie still finds fresh elements in a police operation set in a maze of freight containers, exploiting the tight spaces to deliver dynamic combat, chases and flashes of brilliant slapstick humor.
Do-cheol reveals a cooler side to his blustering persona at a high-society party thrown by Cho Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in), the black-sheep heir to the corporate empire Sin Jin Trading. When Tae-oh deliberately acts up to intimidate Do-cheol, the veteran cop looks so unruffled and unimpressed that even the arrogant brat grudgingly praises his “steely nerves.”
If this minor clash between the haves and have-nots leaves a nasty aftertaste, it gets a whole lot more inflammatory in the next act. For joining a union, Bae and his fellow truck drivers are dismissed and short-changed by their subcontractor Jeong (Jeong Man-sik), who passes the buck on to his client Sin Jin Tradings. Bae’s attempts to air his grievances brings him face-to-face with Tae-oh. In a barbarous scene sure to make audiences’ blood boil, Ryoo lays it on thick, exposing the remorseless sadism of the rich and powerful. The blase competence of Tae-oh’s cousin, senior VP Choi (Yu Hae-jin), at cleaning up his higher-up’s mess, suggests that with enough money and the right connections, someone can get away with murder — that is, if they haven’t run up against the pig-headed Do-cheol and his equally bloody-minded teammates, who are bent on seizing justice for Bae.
“Veteran” throbs with Neanderthal-like machismo, and it doesn’t get more roughneck than when Do-cheol, his chief Oh (Oh Dal-su) and superintendent (Cheon Ho-jin) try to one-up each other by flaunting their bruises, scars and bald patches. What also drives the characters to defy their top brass is an old-fashioned sense of honor as well as ego — “”Pain won’t last, but shame will,” says Do-cheol during a sweaty gym session.
Still, in contrast with numerous Korean actioners, much of the male belligerence in “Veteran” is laced with goofy gags and self-mockery, while sick thugs like Tae-oh get their comeuppance. Macho men also get a reality check from women like Do-cheol’s sassy teammate Miss Bong (Jang Yoon-ju), who knocks out everyone with her taekwondo high kicks, or the detective’s wife (Jin Kyung), who gives Choi a withering dressing down when he tries to bribe her.
Ryoo’s ninth film is not as subtle or cynical as his “The Unjust” in evoking Korean cronyism, but it’s no less scabrous in terms of having a go at autocratic, absurdly feudal chaebo (conglomerate) culture — as in the scene when top executives at Sin Jin are given adult incontinence diapers before a conference to help them sit through the Chairman’s speeches, or when the Chairman makes Choi get down on all fours and then spanks him with a cane.
With a screenplay less bloated than Ryoo’s previous works, and drawing characters who know what they stand for, the film steadily builds up to its sensational catharsis and undeniably satisfying payoff — an all-stops-out mano-a-mano clash in the middle of a Seoul street, which proves indeed that taking pain is as manly as giving it. Suggesting two rhinos giving their horns a test drive, the opponents’ aggression is so raw one can taste the saltiness of their bloodied gums.
Hwang, who deftly slips into any role, from gormless peasant (“You are My Sunshine”) to sophisticated playboy (“Happiness”) to shady cop (“The Unjust”), plays the loose canon with irrepressible charisma without actually trying too hard. The dimple-cheeked and dangerously sexy Yoo, so likable playing wholesome, working-class lads (“Punch,” “Tough as Iron”), captures Tae-oh’s smug entitlement, as well as neediness, but mostly revels in near-parodic pyschotic obnoxiousness,
The ensemble cast, which engages in nonstop banter, adds much liveliness to the straightforward plot. Among them, Oh stands out for an unusually laid-back rendition of Do-cheol’s wussy but ultimately loyal boss. He gives a moving performance in a speech that renders his fear of fighting society’s elites poignant and human: “We gotta work till our kids go to college.”
Tech credits are no-nonsense, geared to convey an everyday, unglamorous atmosphere. Jung Doo-hong’s action set pieces eschew visual pyrotechnics for close range, muscular contact. Editors Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum set a brisk tempo without muddling story development, while Bang Joon-seok’s jazz-rock guitar score stirs excitement.