“Veteran” – 2015 New York Korean Film Festival Review

Action film maestro Ryoo Seung-wan scores a potent cinematic punch with “Veteran,” his latest foray into the macho milieu of cops, thieves, gangsters and corrupt elites. From the scrappy, down-and dirty action of “Die Bad” (2000), “No Blood No Tears” (2002), and “City of Violence” (2006), to more expansive sagas such as “Crying Fist” (2005) and “The Unjust” (2010), Ryoo excels in vividly and entertainingly limning the struggles for power and dominance among the characters in the mostly male environments he depicts.

Ryoo’s last film “The Berlin File” (2013) ambitiously attempted to expand his canvas, moving the action to Europe and delving into geopolitical espionage with typically accomplished, but flawed results. “Veteran” jettisons the sorts of convoluted storylines that hampered “The Berlin File,” replacing this with a stripped-down, straightforward narrative that poses no headaches for those trying to follow the plot. In fact, this is a story about good guys battling bad guys told without an ounce of nuance or complexity. But who can argue when the results are as well-crafted, deeply satisfying in terms of visuals and storytelling, and just plain fun as this? Practically the dictionary definition of a crowd-pleaser, “Veteran” quickly became one of the top five box office hits of all time in Korea following its release there in August, cementing Ryoo’s status as not only a massively popular filmmaker, but one who makes quality films that entertain without condescension or rote cliché.

Opening to the pulsating strains of Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” “Veteran” wastes not a second in dropping us in the middle of the action, as Seoul police detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min) and his squad go undercover to bust a stolen car ring, a collaboration between Busan gangsters and Russian mobsters. This leads to the film’s first delightfully mounted action setpiece, involving the cops chasing criminals through a maze of shipping containers, a scene executed with energetic fighting and expert comic timing.

Following the successful outcome of the sting operation, Do-cheol relishes the prospect of being rewarded with a promotion, and eventually working his way to a comfortable retirement. Though his ambitions in life are admittedly modest, this takes nothing away from the immense satisfaction he derives from taking down criminals, even as he exasperates his boss Oh (Oh Dal-soo) with his unorthodox methods.

In the course of the operation, Do-cheol befriends Bae Cheol-ho (Jung Woong-in), a truck driver who helped to tip off the cops. Bae is having his own problems, having just been fired, along with a bunch of his co-workers, by his contractor boss Jeon (Jung Man-sik) for forming a union. Worse, Jeon refuses to pay Bae and his co-workers the back wages that they’re owed. Bae stages a public protest outside the corporate offices of Sin Jin Trading, the company overseeing the construction project he was working on.

This puts Bae in direct contact with Sin Jin heir apparent Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in), a sadistic, sociopathic, coke-addled young man. Tae-oh, who generally acts like an overgrown spoiled brat, epitomizes the arrogant sense of entitlement depicted here as typical behavior of the sort of chaebol (Korean term for family-run corporation) scion that he is.

Tae-ho calls for a meeting between Bae and Jeon in his office to resolve their dispute and to defuse the bad publicity being generated by Bae’s protest. Instead of dealing with this in a professional way, Tae-ho – as befits his impulse to treat those he considers beneath him in the manner of a bad kid pulling the wings off flies – settles matters in a wince-inducing scene that essentially amounts to a violently sadistic hazing of Bae, right in front of Bae’s young son.

Soon after, Bae ends up in the hospital, after an apparent suicide attempt stemming from his humiliation. Bae’s son calls Do-cheol; the boy got his number off a business card the detective gave his father. After Do-cheol questions Bae’s son, he immediately begins to suspect that there is much more to this than there appears. Do-cheol had an earlier encounter with Tae-ho, at a party he was invited to by a friend, where Tae-ho tried but failed to rattle Do-cheol with a display of wild, obnoxious behavior involving casual mistreatment of women.

Do-cheol begins to doggedly investigate the truth behind what happened to Bae, as well as digging into Sin Jin’s corrupt business practices.  Meanwhile, Sin Jin senior vice president and Tae-ho’s right-hand man Choi Dae-woong (Yoo Hae-jin) tries to obstruct justice by generating pressure from local police – Do-cheol’s working outside his jurisdiction – to get the detective to stop his investigation. Choi tries to grease the wheels with bribery money, even attempting to bribe Do-cheol’s wife. After all this, the stage is set for a violent showdown between Do-cheol and Tae-ho, who eventually emerge as the film’s main antagonists.

“Veteran,” over the course of its two-hour-and-change running time, is never less than engaging, whether its characters are enmeshed in battles with makeshift weapons or old-fashioned fisticuffs, or exchanging rapid-fire banter, or even in a car chase or two for good measure. The title of the piece refers not only to the detective at its center, but the filmmaker and his collaborators as well. “Veteran” is the work of a director remaining solidly within his wheelhouse, yet retaining a freshness and vitality as he does what he does best with such confidence and precision that watching it all unfold becomes an infectious pleasure.

Ryoo maintains his stalwart crew of ace collaborators, all of whom impress. Longtime stunt coordinator and fight choreographer Jung Doo-hong helps to stage exciting and skillfully executed fight sequences, often with the antagonists in very close quarters. Assiduously eschewing CGI or editing trickery, these battles culminate in a climactic knock-down, drag-out, mano-a-mano confrontation on the street – complete with gawkers armed with camera-ready smartphones – that is as elegantly staged as it is uncompromisingly brutal. Choi Young-hwan’s precisely vivid cinematography, along with Kim Sang-bum and Kim Jae-bum’s punchy, razor-sharp editing, enhance the stylishness of the overall package.

However, the inexhaustible jet fuel that keeps this engine running is provided by the powerhouse central performance of Hwang Jung-min, who proves once again, as he has so many times before, to be one of Korea’s most accomplished and versatile actors. Hwang acquits himself with a pronounced swagger and charisma to burn, demonstrating that he, too, is a “veteran” as confidently skilled as the filmmakers who have captured his excellent portrayal. The film’s other players uniformly provide able support and are worthy foils to Hwang’s tireless detective, especially Yoo Ah-in, who even as he chews the scenery to pieces as the cartoonishly over-the-top villain, retains an unnervingly controlled sense of pitch-dark menace.

And yes, there will be a sequel. The prospect of spending a couple more hours in the company of these characters and talented filmmakers should be one eagerly awaited by any self-respecting movie fan.

“Veteran” screens November 8 at 7:45 p.m. at the Museum of the Moving Image as part of the New York Korean Film Festival. Director Ryoo Seung-wan will appear in person. For more information, and to purchase tickets, visit the museum’s website.