Veteran (Beterang)

Korea (2015) Dir. Ryoo Seung-Wan

Who would want to be on the police force in Korea? Not only do you often end up beaten within an inch of your life on a regular basis but also your superiors try to thwart your every move while well-connected criminals are able to bribe and manipulate their way out of any charge. Still, it makes for a fun action movie!

On a sting to bust a car smuggling ring, Detective Seol Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min) of the Seoul Metropolitan Crime Bureau, enlists the aid of humble truck driver Bae (Jung Woong-in), whose boss Jeong (Jeong Man-sik) owes him and the other truckers a lot of money in back pay. As he is just a subcontractor, Jeong passes the buck back to the company that employed him, Sin Jin Tradings.

Bae confronts the director and heir to the company, Cho Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in), personally about the money but is brutally beaten up in front of his young son (Kim Jae-hyeon). Later Do-cheol receives a call from Bae’s son telling him father is in hospital after a suicide attempt, but Do-cheol believes it was staged. In attempting to expose the truth, Do-cheol is hampered by a mass cover up operation from all sides.

Ryoo Seung-Wan has form with the crime thriller genre, including the gloriously intense City Of Violence and the politically driven The Berlin File, while also dipping into comedy with Arahan and Dachimawa Lee. For Veteran, Ryoo blends the two, at least for the first act which is riotously funny despite veering towards puerile at times.  

It takes some thirty minutes to get the main thrust of the story but the time isn’t wasted, building up the characters, establishing the roles of the major players and laying the foundations for what is to come. Do-cheol is a maverick cop who gets result but not in the way his superiors like – not that they don’t look the other way when it suits them.

Tae-oh is a spoilt playboy with a drug habit who treats people with contempt unless he has a use for them. He believes that money can buy anything or sort out any problem. His cousin, Director Choi (Yu Hae-Jin) is Tae-oh’s clean up man at the behest of Tae-oh’s father chairman Jo (Song Young-Chang), how employed Choi’s father. Because of their wealth and connections, the family are able to cover their bases at every level including the police force, which spells trouble for Do-cheol.

As we have seen recently in Korean crime thrillers the rich vs. poor dichotomy has become a popular topic for story ideas and Veteran is no different. It may not lay it on as thick as others but it doesn’t have to as this is delineated efficiently enough through the arrogance of the rich characters and their callous actions and corrupt behaviour, while the “good guys” are beset by money problems, thus are ripe for a pay off.

In many ways Tae-oh is almost a caricature of the privileged power mad son of a powerful magnate, shameless in his flaunting of the rules while convincing those who need to be convinced with his charming demeanour. But he is too self-obsessed for his own good which eventually becomes his downfall in the film’s finale, a scene which superficially is ridiculous in perpetuating a flawed society but is actually very astute in its accuracy.

For Do-cheol he not only has to circumvent the walls of corruption to get the truth about Bae’s injuries, he is fighting his own profession due to the police who happen to be in Sin Jin’s pockets. Luckily, Do-cheol has a loyal team, including the wonderful if slightly token kick-ass female Miss. Bong (Jang Yoon-Ju) and an understanding boss in Team leader Oh (Oh Dal-Su). It would have been nice to explore this camaraderie more but what we do get is great fun to watch.

This is true of the film as a whole – it is great fun to watch and never stops moving for anything irrelevant or unnecessary. It is also very dark and violent, often veering into the realm of discomfort with its gnarly exploration of Tae-oh’s indulgent excesses, but the continued momentum is as much a hook to keep us engaged as the unfolding story.

Written by Ryoo it does follow the genre blueprint to the letter and offers little in the way of surprises – we know who the criminals are, it is just a matter of when they get their comeuppance. Some story threads are not explored to the level they should – Tae-oh impregnating a famous TV actress seems thrown in as a conduit to show his selfishness – but overall the script is pretty tight with so much going on.

In a rarity for a Korean movie the mix of humour and violence isn’t the jarring clash of tones as it could have been, the two kept largely separate with the merest of overlap in the opening sequence. From subtle pathos to slapstick silliness and Miss Bong’s martial arts displays, this is the right group of characters who are charismatic yet sturdy enough to be able to pull off such diverse moods.

This also extends to Ryoo’s direction and the cast. Hwang Jung-min has played police detectives before but he seems at his most comfortable as Do-cheol, getting to be an action hero, seriously angry fighter for justice and a clown when need be. Yoo Ah-in is suitably slick looking to make Tae-oh a thoroughly dislikeable self-absorbed entitled villain, while Yu Hae-Jin is perfectly obsequious as Choi.

It’s been a while since a Korean action thriller film has been this much fun while also telling a compelling story and boast strongly written characters, so it comes as no surprise that Veteran was a domestic box office which is not only getting a sequel, but a Chinese remake too.

Until then enjoy this vastly entertaining and action packed crime escapade.