Korean Film Festival 'Veteran' review

★★★★☆
It's rare nowadays to come across a police actioner that wears its political heart proudly on its sleeve and deals in a bold brush strokes and a strongly defined moral agenda. Nevertheless, that is precisely what Ryoo Seung-wan's Veteran (2015) is and does. This is police procedural as a heady mix of David vs Goliath bullheadedness, slapstick humour, bone-crunching action and the eternal struggle between good and evil, in which the latter role is undertaken by the despicable 1%.

There's much reduction to broad stereotypes, but Veteran stands up for the little guy in a rousing drama rife with unexpected plot-twists and some very slickly choreographed action set-pieces. The two most impressive of these occur at the top of the film - two enormously fun revs of the engine before the key is even really in the ignition. An unnecessarily complicated plan sees super cop Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jeong-min) spring from the boot of a stolen car before proceeding to take out an entire troupe of thieves.

This Seo does in hugely enjoyable fashion, fusing the elegance of a master martial-artist with improvisation and goofy luck more reminiscent of Inspector Gadget. The comic effect is accentuated by the arrival of his bungling colleagues and then in the gloriously silly sting operation to take down the Russian mobsters trafficking the stolen vehicles. It's in these sequences that the visuals of Choi Young-hwan are at their most inventive, brilliantly utilising the otherwise overly familiar locale of a yard full of shipping containers. Indeed, things settle down across the board once the real storyline kicks in. This involves Seo befriending a struggling lorry driver, Bae (Jeong Woong-in), and taking up the fight when Bae's attempted suicide leaves him in a coma. His desperation is due to a boss reneging on pay and a subsequent humiliation at the hands of the vindictive and privileged twerp, Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah In), who is several levels further up the corporate food chain. Seo and Tae-oh have already crossed proverbial swords at a swanky party; "what an honour to drink with the super rich. I thought you would party differently, somehow" chides Seo.

Thus battle commences between the morally upstanding "tough guy" detective and the malicious and narcissistic coke fiend born into money. "We may have no money," says Seo to a colleague, "but we have integrity.” Of course, it’s all very much on the nose, but that is precisely the place that Veteran is hoping to punch you. Yoo ramps his performance up to eleven as the atrociously amoral rich kid whose moral compass has been forever destroyed by his wealth and his father. Elsewhere the likes of Oh Dal-su and Jang Yoon-ju as the fly-kicking Ms. Bong provide ample comedic support to Hwang, who has to largely abandon his wild charisma and play it fairly straight once his quest has begun. As a result, Veteran is unable to quite maintain the level of entertainment that it sets out in its opening, but the admittedly simple themes are embraced with a dynamism and gusto that make its righteous-cop-vs-immoral-tycoon narrative so riveting.

The London Korean Film Festival takes place from 2-14 November. koreanfilm.co.uk

Ben Nicholson | @BRNicholson

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