After a three month sting operation involving stolen cars, tough detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jeong-min (황정민) and his team, headed by Team Leader Oh (Oh Dal-soo (오달수), congratulate themselves and prepare for the inevitable promotion their work has wrought. Yet the celebration is cut short when Do-cheol’s truck driver friend Bae (Jeong Woong-in (정웅인) is critically hurt while protesting for unpaid wages, with all evidence pointing to rich, spoilt conglomerate owner’s son, Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in (유아인). While Jo’s aide Choi Sang-moo (Yoo Hae-jin (유해진) attempts to use money and influence to have the case closed, Do-cheol is relentless in his pursuit for Jo’s incarceration.
Brilliantly entertaining, wonderfully inventive, and featuring a gripping politically-charged story alongside bone-crunching stunts, director Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran is easily the most exciting slice of Korean cinema in 2015 so far. In what has been a particularly poor year for the industry, Veteran offers a badly needed revitalising breath of fresh air as well as marking director Ryoo’s most accomplished work to date.
Veteran begins in incredibly strong fashion as Do-cheol and his team take down an international car smuggling ring, with the quips flying almost as fast as the punches. It’s a fantastically thrilling introduction to director Ryoo’s distinct stylisation as well as the quirky characters on the investigative team, as the film excels with brilliant tongue-in-cheek humour mixed with frenetic stunts to hugely entertaining effect. For action aficionados Veteran also manages to include comedic riffs on other examples of the genre, notably Transporter 2‘s garage sequence, to raise self-referential laughs. It all makes for one of the most high-octane adrenaline-pumping openings in recent memory and is an absolute riot.
After kicking off so impressively, Veteran‘s pacing dramatically changes gears in order to lay the foundations for the central narrative. It’s a jarring alteration yet also a necessary one, as helmer/scribe Ryoo takes his time to incorporate new conflicts and antagonists, building the politically-charged threats posed to palpable levels. It’s an effective technique that demands investment while allowing the film to roar to life through exciting set-pieces, culminating in an explosive pulse-pounding crescendo that will have audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure.
Veteran never forsakes the story for action, with the engaging narrative consistently touching upon highly politically sensitive issues within contemporary Korean culture. News media in the peninsula has for years reported on the spoilt and selfish behaviour displayed by chaebol (conglomerate) CEO’s children – the most recent of which was the infamous ‘nut rage’ incident – and Veteran picks up such themes brilliantly by exploring how such figures employ their power, finances and influence to avoid legalities. Bolstered by a basis in modern society, it’s great material for the genre, providing villainous personal and corporations and some compelling twists and turns, whilst also granting a sense of catharsis for the general public.
While corruption informs the impetus of the story, Veteran is also at its core a tale of two men in bitter conflict, and it’s hard to imagine any two actors other than Hwang Jung-min and Yo Ah-in fulfilling the roles so emphatically. Hwang Jung-min in particular is clearly having an absolute ball as detective Do-cheol, bringing incredible humour and charisma to the role so that even when he is being stubborn and downright dirty, he is nothing less than engrossing. Yoo Ah-in meanwhile is in absolute top form as the vile Jo Tae-oh, with his performance earning considerable praise. The characterisation is a tad excessive yet Yoo Ah-in commits so confidently that he’s an absolute joy to hate. Legendary supporting actor Oh Dal-so gets some of the film’s best laughs, while it’s great to see Yoo Hae-jin, who’s often typecast in comedic roles, stretched into new terrain.
Although an enormously entertaining film, Veteran is not without problems. Writer/director Ryoo still seems to have difficulty writing three-dimensional female characters, constructing them either as nagging bitches or wholesome victims. Miss Bong, wonderfully portrayed by Jang Yoon-ju, is somewhat of an exception and a welcome kick-ass heroine but tends to provide punchlines rather than development.
That aside, Veteran is easily the best slice of popcorn cinema this year and a joyous thrill ride from start to finish.
Veteran is a revitalising, pulse-pounding action/thriller from director Ryoo Seung-wan. Examining the corruption in chaebols has never been so cathartic as the film is consistently entertaining, wonderfully inventive and featuring some truly exciting and hilarious stunts that has audiences gasping, wincing and laughing in equal measure. Easily the best slice of popcorn cinema in 2015.