Tuesday, 4 April 2006

Running Wild 야수 (2006)

Well-made cops vs. gangsters drama follows classic formula. That proves to be its undoing

Will Kwon Sang-woo, the previously hot leading man of Korean television and cinema, be able to break his recent box office jinx? Released earlier this month in Korea, Running Wild performed below expectations, failing to ignite at the box office or take off with Korean critics. Thanks to the Korean wave, this movie may be able to recoup domestic losses through screens in China, Japan, Thailand, and Singapore. It’s taking a page off April Snow, which failed to hit it with moviegoers (hardly anyone watched it) or critics (they found it boring), but became box office gold in Japan and Singapore with the help of Bae Young-jun’s fans.

I’m not saying that Running Wild is as weak as April Snow. On the contrary, Running Wild is very well-made and slick, even when compared to movies of the same genre from Hong Kong cinema’s golden age in the 1980s. It boasts the highest production values for an Asian cops vs gangsters action movie so far – and that surely counts towards something.

At the heart of the movie is the buddy film between by-the-books deputy public prosecutor Oh Jin-woo (Yoo Ji-tae) and hard-boiled detective Jang Doo-young (Kwon Sang-woo). Jang is the wild man of the two, preferring to solve crimes with his knuckles, while Oh is the mild-mannered office creature who relies on evidence, warrants, and subpoenas to bring down criminals. The two don’t mix well, but are forced in their interests to work together in order to bring down the kingpin of crime, Yu Kang-jin (Son Byung-ho).

There’s no excuse for unoriginality, but then again, there’s nothing wrong to being unoriginal. What matters is whether the film works as a whole, and how it compares to similar movies. Let’s look at the acting for the time being. Yoo Ji-tae plays the passive desk-bound prosecutor well enough, but creates no sparks. Forced to supply the dynamism to the buddy movie is the very mad (Mel Gibson Lethal Weapon mad) and out of control detective whom Kwon Sang-woo plays. He’s rather self-destructive and violently incompetent, but his fans will be howling at how their idol looks so unappealing and weather-beaten with his third-degree tan and monster of a moustache. This may very well be the first movie where Kwon does not lift up his shirt to titillate that very important demographic.

The real problem lies in the character of Yu Kang-jin. The kingpin is tough as nails, slippery as an eel, and wilier than a fox. The two cops attempt to hunt him down and pin a few unsolved crimes to him, and as per classic 1980s fare, the gangster too easily swats them away by manipulating the judicial and political system. The payoff and eventual resolution that audiences expect cannot be fulfilled, and it’s not because the director wanted a bleak ending. Like a few cops vs gangsters Hong Kong movies, the villain is too resourceful, powerful, and out of the league of the cops. The scriptwriters here have written themselves into an impasse, just like how the scriptwriters then wrote themselves into an impasse. The payoff in this movie, as with its filmic ancestors, is a hastily put together One Year Later sequence that comes out of nowhere (but yet is predictable if you know the particular formula) and screams “cop out!”

How does this film compare to the movies of the 1980s? The writing has not changed from the old formula. With better equipment, acting, a dedication to higher production values, and the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, Running Wild looks much better than all the movies the audience are bound to be reminded of when watching this flick. We certainly hope that Singaporean moviegoers will be more appreciative of this attempt than the Korean audience.

First published at incinemas on 6 April 2006

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