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Midnight Runners
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by Jay Seaver

"A neat idea for a crime thriller that doesn't quite keep running."
3 stars

According to the subtitles, this film's credits end with a promise that "Midnight Runners will return", which seems kind of optimistic unless the young stars are very popular in South Korea despite not being in much that has hit the film festival/general release circuit in North America. They've done some TV, though, so maybe they're big on DramaFever. Still, that's a lot of confidence in a middling movie that's got a good premise but has trouble getting the most of it.

It opens in 2015, as roughly a hundred high school graduates show up to apply for the Korean National Police University, with the fearsome Joo-hee (Park Ha-seon), aka "Medusa", supervising the initial weed-out process. Somehow, Kang Hee-yeol (Kang Ha-neul), a nerdy germophobe who seems more suited for MIT than KNPU, and Park Gi-jung (Park Seo-joon), a cocky kid who can't afford to go anywhere else, wind up not just making the cut but unlikely friends. A year and a half later, though, they're frustrated, and a night of striking out with girls at a nightclub highlights how this path isn't going to lead to respect or financial stability. A pretty girl (Lee Ho-jung) catches their eye on the way back to the bus, though, and while they're doing rock-paper-scissors to see who goes to talk to her, she's pulled into a van. Professor Yang (Sung Dong-il) has taught them that the critical window for the kidnapping of an adult woman is seven hours, but when they report the abduction to the police, they're told the entire missing person squad has been detailed for the kidnapping of a rich man's son. The only thing to do, then, is to go back to the scene of the crime and see what they can figure out themselves.

That's not a bad premise for a movie at all, with the main problem initially being that the character introductions hint at a lighter sort of buddy-cop film than what eventually surfaces (that the English-language title brings to mind one of the all-time great buddy movies doesn't help). It is a surprisingly enjoyable "cop" movie when it gets moving - there's a likable determination to the way the students start tracking victims and suspects down with more ingenuity than evidence, and later on, a few good action bits that emphasize just how hard this is and how young and inexperienced the students are. That it's not exactly subtle in how it plays up its main characters are especially dedicated but kind of shrugs at the inefficiencies of the system isn't great - writer/director Kim Joo-hwan builds the plot around poor use of resources but the tone of the film sometimes has a hard time getting past mild frustration - but it's a solid foundation for the movie even when Hee-yeol and Gi-jung are uncertain.

It bogs down and gets grim fairly quickly, unfortunately. The opening act takes a lot of time to establish the characters and setting as well set up callbacks, and that's reflected with a fairly lengthy time spent arguing about procedure and how the guys should be rewarded or disciplined toward the end. Most frustrating is the middle, when the film discards the ticking clock it had pointedly set up because that doesn't leave time for really bad things to happen (they wind up investigating a grimmer case than a simple kidnapping). The writers push their way into making sure that Professor Yang and Medusa have to help out even though the audience is with the young characters. A fair amount of time passes despite how a big part of what sells the movie, both in previews and once things start, is that they're pushing forward because any delay could be deadly.

The potential franchise would benefit from a well-case pair of cadets, at least - Kang Ha-neul does a good job not losing Hee-yeol's dorky charm even as the filmmakers opt to smooth out some of his more obvious eccentricities after a year and a half at KNPU, and Park Seo-joon plays a handsome but not exactly academically-gifted lug without making Gi-jung a himbo best served as the butt of jokes. They're built as an odd couple, but their chemistry comes easily. Sung Dong-il plays Yang as a familiar sort of Korean authority figure, laid-back until he's got a reason to jump down someone's throat or upbraid a young punk, but he does it as well as anyone not named Choi Min-sik. Park Ha-seon makes a good enough drill sergeant in the beginning that it's good to see her pop up again later.

There's a good cop story in here, and it's a shame the filmmakers didn't trust their hook a bit more. "Midnight Runners" is at its best when it's rolling, but slows down too often. If these runners do return, that's something that the filmmakers should keep in mind.

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originally posted: 08/29/17 11:10:29
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  N/A (15)

  25-Aug-2017 (M)

Directed by
  Joo-hwan Kim

Written by
  Joo-hwan Kim

  Seo-joon Park
  Ha-neul Kang
  Ha-seon Park
  Dong-il Sung
  Yoo-ram Bae

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