The flashy beginning to Veteran (2015), director Ryoo Seung-wan’s biggest box-office hit to date, suggests a romp along the lines of Extreme Job. To Blondie’s “Heart of Glass,” two Korean stars dressed as a nouveau riche couple march into a parking-garage sale of as-no-questions luxury cars. The two stars are Hwang Jung-min, an A-lister of commercial Korean cinema (New World, Ode to My Father, Deliver Us from Evil, The Wailing), in pinstriped suit and sunglasses; and Jang Yoon-ju, better known as host of Korea’s Next Top Model, working it in diamante-studded pink velour and leopard-skin heels. Here they’re detectives posing as nouveau-riche lovers in order to bust a car-theft ring.
Hwang is Seo Do-cheol, the veteran of the title, Jang Yoon-ju is his team’s sole woman, Miss Bong, bad-tempered and kick-happy. Their partners-in-law at the Metropolitan Bureau are detectives Wang (Oh Dae-hwan of Office and Deliver Us from Evil) and newbie Yoon (Kim Shi-hoo). The team isn’t as hapless as the Extreme Job crew, but that doesn’t stop their Chief (Oh Dal-su of Oldboy, The Attorney and 1987: When the Day Comes) from shouting at them—“I said no talking with food in your mouth”— or stop their boss’s boss, the Senior Superintendent (Cho Ho-jin of Beyond Evil and Life), with threatening them all.
Seo Do-cheol likes to act first and worry later, taking on a whole crew of car thieves without waiting for his team to arrive. (When they do arrive at the illicit auto shop, Wang rolls straight into a pit and has to be pulled out by the newbie.) Wily, cheerful and quick-thinking, Hwang’s character has all the fighting prowess of In-nam in Deliver Us from Evil, but without the angst. “You became a cop to beat people up,” Chief Oh says, and Do-cheol is happy to hear, when he finally gets home, that his little boy has been fighting at school. (His wife, a social worker, takes a dimmer view.) Do-cheol has an uncomplicated honour code: criminals can be beaten but bribes should never be taken. In this he’s quite different from other police he encounters in the course of the film, who accept bribes from the powerful to cover up inconvenient charges, and it’s why his initial desire for a promotion and pay rise, above all else, will lose out to his sense of justice. “We may have no money,” he tells another cop, “but we have integrity.”
So serious and familiar social currents ripple through the film: the police aren’t well-paid, so are vulnerable to bribery, and chaebol plutocrats—conglomerates run by rich families—can pressure law officials into pragmatic rather than fair decisions. The rich can elude responsibility for firing, not paying, injuring or even killing other people when those people lack connections and status. “You know how it works,” Team Leader Oh tells Do-cheol when Internal Affairs shows up to torment him. “Rank is king.” Social iniquity and the often brutal implications of hierarchy in Korea are the shadows that soon emerge in the film, as they do in so many contemporary Korean dramas, including recent television series D.P., Move to Heaven and Beyond Evil.
The hard-working everyman of the film is Bae, a truck driver who’s lost his contract—and back pay—after joining the union. (It’s a relief to see Jung Woong-in, of Empress Ki and Chief of Staff, playing someone less than evil for a change.) If Do-cheol and his wife (played by Jin Kyung of Assassination and Dr Romantic) struggle to make loan repayments and can’t afford to buy their own home, Bae and his wife (Jang So-Yeon of Crash Landing on You and Something in the Rain) can barely survive, their son riding around in Bae’s truck because they can only afford for him to attend a half-day of school.
When Bae suffers, unspeakably, at the hands of a wealthy scion, Do-cheol—in the fine tradition of rough-around-the-edges dogged cops who can’t compromise for the sake of their careers—won’t let it go. Their nemesis is rich super-brat Cho Tae-oh, a dastardly druggie played with suitable mania by Yoo Ah-in (Punch, The Throne, Burning). There are a number of nasty characters in the film, including Jeon the unprincipled contractor boss (Jung Man-sik of Chief of Staff and The Yellow Sea) and Cho Tae-oh’s bullying, tyrannical father (Son Young-chang of The Fortress and Attorney). But Tae-oh has no redeeming features: he is rapacious greed and entitlement personified, discarding his “Model Chick” girlfriend (Empress Ki’s Jeong Da-hye) for an underage ingenue (Park So-dam of Parasite), breaking his bodyguard’s leg, and by turns humiliating and terrifying everyone around him.
His enabler-in-chief—and literal whipping boy—is his older cousin Choi Dea-woong (A Taxi Driver, 1987: When the Day Comes), who will endure anything, no matter how demeaning or immoral or illegal, to maintain a place in the family business, Sin Jin Trading. Dea-woong is not the only person willing to overlook Tae-oh’s vicious deeds because of his extreme wealth, including TV producer Yoon Hong-ryeol (Lee Dong-hwi of Reply 1988 and Extreme Job), who needs investment capital: Hong-ryeol may wince when Tae-oh mashes food into the faces of young women and stubs out a cigar on his bodyguard’s neck, but he won’t leave the table. Everyone can be bought, from doctors at the hospital who conveniently “lose” medical records to police getting “kickbacks,” from newspaper editors accepting advertising to squash stories to victim’s families getting paid off and silenced.
The film’s final sequence is violent and thrilling, and nudging the absurd, involving a high-speed smash—rather than chase— and a prolonged public showdown between Do-cheol and Tae-oh, featuring a cameo by Ma Dong-seok (AKA Don Lee, of Train to Busan). The Korean Film Actors Association gave its Martial Arts award to stunt choreographer Jung Doo-ho won, who also worked on Hwayi: A Monster Boy.
The witty dialogue and physical antics of scenes like the dock-side criminal bust and the police gym are so appealing that it’s unsurprising Veteran was such a massive box-office hit. The script’s humour mitigates the broad-brush evil of the serious storyline: the Met Bureau’s office is the shabby public arena for much comic conflict, as is the Superintendent’s office when Do-cheol and Chief Oh strip down to show off their battle wounds—and, of course, any scene in which a roaring Miss Bong leaps in feet-first.