Extreme Job (Geukhanjikeob)

Korea (2019) Dir. Lee Byeong-heon

People often the police a hard time and sometimes it is deserved, as recent events have demonstrated. But, to give them their due, when they have a dangerous criminal that needs bringing in or a case that requires total dedication, police forces will do anything to get their man. And I mean anything

A police drug squad comprising of Captain Go (Ryoo Seung-Ryong), Detectives Jang (Lee Ha-Nee), Ma (Jin Sun-Kyu), Young-Ho (Lee Dong-Hwi), and Jae-Hoon (Gong Myung), are known for their calamitous efforts in action and on the verge of being disbanded. Given one last chance to catch high profile criminal Lee Moo-Bae (Shin Ha-Kyun), the team set up a stakeout post in a fried chicken restaurant opposite Moo-Bae’s hideout.

However, the restaurant isn’t doing any business so the owner (Kim Jong-Soo) is selling up, prompting Go to buy the restaurant. But, they keep being interrupted by customers, so they start serving chicken as a cover and the restaurant becomes a huge success – to the detriment of their stakeout. Meanwhile, Moo-Bae continues to his shady drug deals right under their noses.

Not a film to watch on an empty stomach, Extreme Job isn’t as silly as it sounds though there are times when it certainly appears to be heading that way. Incompetent cops proving themselves is an old plot premise that has been recycled ad infinitum ever since the days of the Keystone Cops, prompting director Lee Byeong-heon and co-writer Bae Se-Young to push themselves in coming up with a fresh angle.

Mostly played for laughs but with occasional serious intermissions and of course Korea’s trademark violence, the script does a good job of humanising our protagonists, mostly Captain Go, and putting their shortcomings down to human error rather than being so worthless they have no business being cops in the first place. In other words, this isn’t Police Academy or the aforementioned Keystone Cops, just an unfortunate lot.

The film opens with the group trying to bust a dope dealer with Go and Jang’s abseiling down the side of the building going wrong, and they end up barking their arrest orders suspended in mid air. Their target escapes and the group gives chase, causing an 18 car pile-up and create a viral star in a woman who refuses to be car jacked in the process!

Go smarts watching crime squad captain Choi (Song Young-Kyu) being promoted, which also rankles Go’s wife (Kim Ji-Young). She worries about her husband being a cop – his nickname is “Zombie” from surviving 12 stabbings in 20 years – and the paltry money they live on. She hopes he will use his retirement fund to open a small shop instead – except Go uses it to buy the restaurant without telling her.

With Ma assigned as chef, since his family ran a rib restaurant, it is their special sauce that makes the chicken a hit, and after praise appears on social media, business starts to boom. Only Young-Ho the surveillance guy isn’t on board with this, constantly irritated that he has to buy beer or vegetables when he should be monitoring Moo-Bae, who is planning a huge deal with another wanted dealer Ted Chang (Oh Jung-Se).

Unaware Go is a cop, Moo-Bae’s business associate Jung (Heo Joon-Seok) offers to buy the restaurant name and start a national franchise for big money. Despite agreeing on the deal, this gets the team suspicious, as they should be – Jung is also using the shops as a cover to deliver Moo-Bae’s drugs. Seeing their name brought into disrepute means only one thing – it’s time to be police officers again.

Police must really be low paid in Asia if the daily profit from a chicken restaurant eclipses their monthly wage so maybe Go and his team are in the wrong job. Maybe this film was Lee’s way of hinting to the government that the police deserve better wages, using the sudden boost in wealth from the chicken shop as a lighter alternative to the cliché of corruption or abuse of power for cops to supplement their salaries.  

But it is funny to see them become so ensconced in the service industry that they let their police work fall to the wayside, and the full circle of their name being besmirched bringing them back to reality is clever plotting. There is a slight niggle in how quickly the initially change came about, literally one scene to the next, when the growing pains of running a restaurant might have provided some niche comedy within the general broad strokes on offer.

One thing that keeps the energy level constant is the chemistry of Go’s squad, a real motley crew who bounce off each other in both jest and through clashing personalities, but the respect is there, even if they refuse to admit it. Jang might be the lone female but is one of the lads, and as we learn during the climatic multi-person fight, a Muay Thai champion! Just as well, as Moo-Bae’s bodyguard Sun-Hee (Jang Jin-Hee) is a lethal female fighter in need of real competition.

Shame their showdown is short as it could have been a real show stealer, just as Lee Ha-Nee is throughout the film as Jang, with a weary look or scathing, pithy retort. Ryoo Seung-Ryong has the most focus as Go, but the rest of team each have a moment in the spotlight too. The villains are rather thinly drawn but thankfully not caricatures; Shin Ha-Kyun’s urbane edginess is a fitting contrast to Oh Jung-Se’s gregariousness.

Extreme Job is resolutely an action-comedy popcorn flick – the second highest grossing film in Korean history – but with a deceptively smart streak running through it via the cute premise of pitting duty vs. capitalism for our maverick cops. Pacing issues aren’t enough to harm the enjoyment factor; in fact, I’d like to see this group in another adventure, they are such fun characters (but unlikely per the ending).