This high-speed political thriller (SBS 2019) reunites the romantic leads of historical fantasy series Gu Family Book (2013), Lee Seung-gi and Bae Suzy, both fit and photogenic, and ready in every episode to fight for their lives. Overseas locations—Morocco and Portugal—and numerous set-piece audacious action sequences make Vagabond feel big-budget and ambitious in scope.
Writers Jang Young-chul and Jung Kyung-soon—the husband-and-wife team behind blockbuster series Empress Ki—have worked with director Yoo In-sik on other series, Giant (2010) and History of a Salaryman (2011): they are used to delivering rich narratives involving revenge quests, corporate rivalry and political shenanigans. In Vagabond the characters navigate a geopolitical network of arms dealing, bribery, conspiracies, kidnapping and assassination. A plane from Korea to Morocco, carrying a Taekwondo group of kids, falls from the sky, and the grieving relatives gather in North Africa—presumably the Moroccan capital, Rabat, given the importance to the story of the Korean Embassy, although filming locations were the more picturesque Tangier and Medina.
Cha Dal-geon (Lee Seung-gi) is a thirty-something, down-on-his-luck stuntman who lives with adorable nephew Hoon (Moon Woo-jin of It’s Okay to Not Be Okay). Hoon dies in the crash, but not before sending Dal-geon a video of the kids larking about pre-take-off. In Morocco Dal-geon spots a passenger glimpsed in the video, seated two rows behind Hoon. Realising there’s a survivor, Dal-geon chases him, nearly dying in the process, setting the pattern for the rest of the series. Vagabond relies on the drive and physicality of Lee Sueng-gi as Cha Dal-geon: he is indestructible. In one episode alone ,Dal-geon survives two high-speed car crashes, just one episode after getting hurled from a car roof over a cliff. “I’m a stuntman!” he shouts, taking over the wheel of a car with tampered brakes. “I’m one of the grieving family members!” he shouts, sliding down a banister in the Blue House to escape the guards. “I don’t think you’ll be struck dead, even by lightning,” the President tells him, and Dal-Geon agrees: “I can’t die.”
The action sequences in Morocco are impressive and thrilling, particularly a siege at the Embassy and a brutal ambush in the streets, and back in Seoul the pace doesn’t flag. Even the bereaved families get involved—including Taekwondo teacher Go Kyu-pil (Park Kwang-deok of Crash Landing on You)—when they’re not eating at Subway, the sandwich chain that seems to sponsor about 80% of Korean TV drama. They want villainous co-pilot Kim Woo-gi (Jang Hyuk-jin of Train To Busan) brought to trial in Korea, but everyone else in the world seems determined to kill him first. There are traitors at every turn—in the highest ranks of government, in the NIS (National Intelligence Service), in police stations, and in the fancy offices of the two rival companies, Dynamic Systems and the oddly named John & Mark. Within the NIS, it’s not only difficult to work out the chain of command (it has a lot of directors), but also which one of these angry men is on Dal-geon’s side: Director-General An Ki-dong (Kim Jong-soo of Extreme Job and Kingdom); Gang Joo-cheol (Lee Ki-young from Designated Survivor: 60 Days); Min Jae-sik (Jung Man-sik of Veteran and Chief of Staff); and the lugubrious Gi Tae-ung (Shin Sung-rok of Hyena)—all of whom are, at some point, taken into custody.
Bae Suzy, popstar and TV favourite, is pretty and personable as ever, even if she tends to act with her hair rather than her eyes. As a rookie agent, she’s unconvincing in both brains and brawn. Even her running is unconvincing, compared with the physicality of Kim Seol-hyun’s portrayal of a determined young cop in Awaken (2020) or Kang Han-na as an actually brainy NIS fighting machine in Designated Survivor: 60 Days (2016). I have the same feeling about Bae Suzy in Start-Up (2020), in which she is adorable and enthusiastic rather than persuasive, in any way, as a professional. In Vagabond, the scenes in which her character, Go Hae-ri, is supposed to demonstrate a winning youth and vulnerability just make her seem silly and immature. When she gets drunk, she brazenly kisses men on the mouth and declares her love. After embarrassing herself this way at a team dinner with boss Gi Tae-ung, Hae-ri ducks and hides in the NIS lobby, with the giggling assistance of her colleague Gong Hwa-sook (Wang Bo-ra of Hyena). The stupidity of their antics makes us fear for Cha Dul-geon’s serious mission to uncover who killed hundreds of people, including his beloved nephew, on the fateful flight. “You’re unqualified,” Gi Tae-yung tells her when they meet again at head office, and it’s hard not to agree with him. (Between these two female agents and the NSS head-office kindergarten of Iris, we should be worried about South Korean national security—or perhaps worried about the way young women in life-or-death jobs are portrayed on television.) The increasingly flagrant cosmetics product placement doesn’t help Hae-ri’s characterisation, in which her cuteness always seems to be the most important thing.
Much of the tension in Vagabond—aside from how Cha Dal-geon can possibly survive another rooftop chase or SWAT team attack—arises from who wants the truth about the plane crash suppressed. Could it be the President of South Korea (Baek Yoon-sik of Inside Men), the Prime Minister (Moon Sung-keun of 1987: When the Day Comes), and/or sneaky aide Yoon Han-ki (Kim Min-jong of Hyena)? Is it the glam Jessica Lee (Moon Jeong-hee) and/or her lawyer aide Hong Seung-beom (Kim Jung-hyun, with fewer braids and weapons than he sported in Empress Ki)? Is it Dynamic boss Edward Park (Lee Geung-young of virtually everything, including Inside Men, Hyena, A Battleship Island and Misaeng) and/or his chic gun-toting aide Mickey (Ryu Won)? And what is the end game for Kim Woo-gi’s wife, Oh Sang-mi, also on the run from everyone else? Why is she the only lead actress in this series who isn’t expected to be sexy or ditzy?
The guns-for-hire characters get many of the best scenes and sometimes the best lines. Squeaky-voiced Lily (Park Ah-in of Mr Sunshine), loves money and killing, in that order, and has an almost comedic rivalry with brutish North Korean defector Kim Do-soo (Choi Dae-chul of Awaken, here given a very bad hairstyle to remind viewers he’s from north of the border.) Like Cha Dal-geon, mercenary Jerome (Teo Yoo) appears to be an indestructible fighting machine. In one episode Jerome stops fighting for a minute to deliver lines in English: he sounds more natural than the native English-speakers with bit parts in the series. (JJ Graham and John D. Michaels of Mr Sunshine let down the side once again.)
Vagabond is entertaining, even as it stretches credulity (not least that Dal-geon, ludicrously handsome and buff, is a virgin), and dilutes the big story with a watery teen-feeling romance. The series title refers to a code word involving a chicken restaurant and its covert back-room operations (as in Extreme Job). This is useful rather than vital to the story, and frontwoman Kye Sun-ja (Kim Sun-young of Crash Landing on You, Romance is a Bonus Book and Reply 1988) has little to do. And that’s the issue with Vagabond, perhaps: it’s exciting and pacy, but its story ambitions exceed the sixteen-episode format. Big temporal leaps are required towards the end so we can return to the flash-forward in episode one, in the North African desert, and the series has no real resolution. It ends looking towards a second series that may or may not come, and—unlike Squid Game, say, or Kingdom—Vagabond’s first series can’t quite stand alone.