Sheriff in Town, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 07/25/17 06:26:25

"Could use a few good deputies."
3 stars (Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2017 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: Filmmaker Kim Hyung-joo has a pretty great concept for an action-comedy here, as the cop who breaks all the rules actually gets fired for a botched investigation but becomes something other than a P.I. who has crawled into the bottle, but you've got to be true to the references you make, and if you start out specifically name-checking Chow Yun-fat in John Woo's "A Better Tomorrow", that's the scale you should probably be working on. It's a fun story, but don't promise a riff on John Woo's best if what you've got is something closer to a 1980s TV spoof.

Five years ago, Detective Choi Dae-ho (Lee Sung-min) charged into a situation without waiting for back-up, hoping to get closer to meth kingpin "Popeye" by capturing his lieutenant Shin Il-sik (Jeong Man-sik), but instead his partner was stabbed, Il-sik got away, and the police only captured frightened mule Koo Jong-jin (Choi Jin-woong). That gets you fired, but five years later, Dae-ho isn't despondent; he's returned to Kijang, Busan, a pretty easy-going beach town where he's gone into business with brother-in-law Deok-man (Kim Sung-kyun) and become the unofficial sheriff. He and his "Voluntary Crime Prevention Group" are looking askance at the "Beach Town" development, and it only gets weirder that when it turns out to be funded by Jong-jin, who after serving two years struck it rich in the traditional medicine business and credits it all to the kindness Dae-ho showed the night he was arrested. But with meth showing up in Kijang just as Jong-jin shows up, Dae-ho can't help but be suspicious - or does he just want to see some real action again?

Even when this sort of crime story is played straight, the cop is frequently the least entertaining part of the movie, and while that's not entirely the case here, Lee Sung-min never quite clicks as Dae-ho the way that Choi Jin-woong does as Jong-jin. Choi's part is the rare comic performance that is funny for just how level it is rather than how it shifts in tone and manages to maintain that over the course of a feature-length film, with Choi always finding the point where Jong-jin is hitting his exaggerated bonhomie in a way that is not normal but not really deadpan, and it's never not funny. This is, perhaps, because it is in large part a response to Lee getting increasingly frantic as Dae-ho, but Lee doesn't have as many gears as Choi does, so the build-up of Dae-ho's suspicions isn't quite the escalating tension it could be.

And, truth be told, they could probably use a few funny secondary characters to go with them. There's quirk to the folks around them, but none really get enough time to stand out from the crowd. There's still a bunch of funny bits as Dae-ho tries to dig up dirt on Jong-jin in increasingly desperate ways, and Kim Sung-kyun makes for a decent sidekick in those scenes. Director Kim Hyung-joo is also not bad at all about finding funny ways to advance the plot, rather than letting things get totally serious as the actual consequences start rating their ugly heads.

The finale could also really use a big action moment or two; indeed, director Kim sometimes seems to waver between whether he wants Dae-ho to be an actual really good cop when the time for action comes or someone who just thinks he's a John Woo character but is actually going to get his butt kicked by any actual gangster. Sometimes how a gag is supposed to play out will seemingly flip during the same scene, like when one crowd looks like they're getting beat up only to wind up victorious after a cut or two.

That opening music cue and the energetic throwback images over the end credits hint at what "The Sheriff in Town" could have been with a few things going a little better. It's still a frequently funny movie, with Choi Jin-woong especially good.

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