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by Jay Seaver

"Fun action, could use less filler."
3 stars

Grady Hendrix made an off-hand comment in one of his recent Kaiju Shakedown columns that a certain movie was too long, but that was kind of a given because Hell will freeze over before a South Korean director cuts a movie with ninety minutes of material to within a half hour of that length. That is the biggest problem with "Veteran" - there's an entertaining action-comedy akin to Jackie Chan's pre-Hollywood output in here, but the bloat puts too much distance between the good parts.

One of those good parts comes early, as Detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jeong-min) and his partner Miss Bong (Jang Yoon-ju) go undercover to bust a stolen car ring, which is done with a couple of fun action scenes that, in-between, have Do-cheol chatting with truck driver Bae (Jeong Woong-in). Bae is soon laid off along with many drivers for unionizing, without even back pay, and his protests have him called up to the office of corporate executive Cho Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in), and, well, if Do-cheol didn't already dislike the twitchy young jackass he'd met at the wrap party for a TV show he consulted on, the phone call from Bae's five-year-old son at the hospital would seal it.

Writer/director Ryoo Seung-wan has made a number of fairly notable South Korean action movies, perhaps most notably City of Violence, but the opening scenes suggest a cop movie with the attitude of his modern martial arts fantasy Arahan - laid-back, funny, maybe a bit self-aware, with an entertaining antagonism between partners Seo and Bong. After that, it's a bit of a let-down to actually get to the meat of the movie, where things get rather more serious and slow down noticeably.

There's still some genuinely entertaining oddness to be found there, although I must admit to not being familiar enough with Korean corporate culture to know whether I should laugh at satirical exaggeration or cry because Ryoo is just presenting things as they actually are. I did get frustrated, though - as amusing as all the material around the board meeting is, for example, it introduces a lot of things that will never be revisited or otherwise have any particular effect on the story. There are other times when the script seems to go in circles, repeatedly re-establishing that Do-cheol is outraged, that the megacorporation involved is ubiquitous enough to exert pressure even when cops aren't explicitly corrupt, and that Tae-oh is a piece of work. The ways that Tae-oh and his father's company try to stymie Do-cheol's investigation aren't quite clever (or effective) enough to be an exciting part of the plot, so once there's a scene demonstrating that Jo Tae-oh is pretty good at martial arts, everything else is just delaying the big fight.

That's despite Yoo Ah-in making an enjoyably oily villain; he comes on-screen knowing that this is a sort of stock character - the script plays into it - that is going to be memorable based entirely on how much the audience hates the guy, and Yoo dives into it. He's the rich kid villain, and Yoo knows just what kind of arrogance and cruelty that requires. Hwang Jeong-min, unfortunately, doesn't get quite the same clarity of purpose as Do-cheol; he's a lot more entertaining as the joking loose-cannon cop in the undercover bits and action segments, but the script backs off how this makes him kind of a pain to be married to and maybe not a kid's best role model to make sure it's clear that his heart is solidly in the right place. It makes Do-cheol kind of generic, and Hwang doesn't quite maintain enough hot-headed impulsiveness between scenes to connect them. The rest of the cast is decent, although Oh Dal-su's team leader is the most steady - Yoo Hae-jin takes forever to come into his own as The Guy That Tae-Oh Talks To and Jang Yoon-ju is underused as Miss Bong (which is a shame, because she's funny as well as pretty decent when given some action bits - she deserves an actual given name!).

The action, at least, is good enough for the audience to wish that there was a lot more of it. The opening pair - in a chop shop and a dockyard - are perfect examples of the tone that the director is going for, with everybody looking capable enough to impress but human enough that some slapstick and other comedic bits don't feel out of place at all. The latter half shifts toward more intense action and impressive stuntwork - there's this jump from one concrete balcony to a lower one that you just don't see in Hollywood movies because there's just no way to pad it - and the audience is reminded that Ryoo Seung-wan is really good at this stuff. The big Do-cheol/Tae-oh fight isn't quite all the audience would hope for, but it's darn good, enough so to make one wish the movie had more of that.

I hate watching a movie like this and wanting the filmmakers to be more efficient in getting from one good part to another, because efficiency is a weird thing to ask of artists and I do believe that folks who can do fine cinematic action are artists. But that's what "Veteran" needs - less time and rope to get off track in the middle and more quality use of the environment to beat bad guys up. Still, if Ryoo had edited this with the same intensity and excitement as he and his cast & crew did everything else, this would be pretty terrific instead of just pretty good.

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originally posted: 09/19/15 09:19:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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  18-Sep-2015 (NR)
  DVD: 05-Apr-2016



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