It might look like that comedy as a genre is slowly, but painfully dying out, drowning, at best, in pop-cultural references that would not last very long, or, at worst, in a pool of body fluids, with undercooked pre-ordered jokes and underwhelming physical gags taking their place in the middle of the two. Saving grace this time comes from South Korea, in the form of Lee Byeong-heon’s action comedy “Extreme Job” that works superbly on both levels, being properly tense and funny-to-die, while also adding satire and social insight in its sub-text. The results in the terms of admissions and box office, both home and abroad, are not just impressive, but record-breaking for a good reason. We finally seized the opportunity to see it in Art Film Fest Košice’s Eastern Promises program section.
The plot revolves around the team of incompetent narcotic detectives lead by the jaded Captain Ko (Ryu Seung-ryong, seen also in the previous record-holder, “The Admiral” directed by Kim Han-min) and consisting of an equally jaded surveillance expert Young-ho (Lee Dong-hwi), the apparently crazy Ma (Jin Seon-kyu), the rookie Jae-hoon (Gong Myung) who is pretty green and too fired up to prove himself and the only female Jang (Lee Hanee). After botching a routine arrest action by causing a severe material damage in quite a wide area, they get a bone thrown by a rivalling police team: a notorious gangster Mubae (Shin Ha-kyun) is putting together his old crew in order to reclaim the throne of the drug-dealing kingpin after some time of absence.
The inner circle of a gang is located in a building across the street from a fried chicken joint that is about to get closed. The team comes to a “brilliant” idea to buy the place off and to make it the centre of their stakeout mission, lead by an information that the ones holed up in the building have a habit of ordering the food from there. It does not seem as a bad plan, until their business reaches some sudden and unexpected success thanks to Detective Ma’s cooking abilities and bold imagination to serve the sticky chicken in a beef marinade. What seems to be a cure for their ailing finances, might prove to counter-productive for the case they are supposedly working on, so they have to tone the success down a bit in order that they could work. But whatever they do, the place gets more and more popular. Until they catch another lucky or “lucky” break…
As the plot progresses, starting quite physical in the sense of comedy, then developing a smart context, it is destined to end up in the orgy of unbelievable laugh-out-loud moments and the pleasures of choreographed violence. “Extreme Job” works on so many levels, hitting many targets often in the same scene and employing different approaches and techniques. It is fast-paced both as comedy and as an action movie, but the pace is not just a trick to cover up the plot holes, since the rhythm of the whole thing is simply amazing, with all the punchlines, figurative and literal, temped to perfection.
Occasional logical acrobatics are also there, but it never becomes a problem for Lee Byeong-heon and his screenwriter Bae Se-young. Lee directs in a smart and studied manner, usually insisting on short, hand-held close-up to mid-distance shots, infusing the film with mock-TV news reports, and quickly switching the tone between action and comedy, while remaining faithful to the very smart sub-text of poorly paid and trained police officers as a result and also a source of corruption rooted in the country’s notorious history of violence and power abuse.
The actors are disciplined in following the director’s lead, but are also quite aware of one another, so the interplay between the characters is as funny to watch as are the perfectly placed moments of pure slapstick and cartoon-like violence. One might argue that they are all pretty broadly sketched, but it is not a problem for this kind of film. We even get a bit of Captain Ko’s backstory, which Ryu uses as a clue to perfectly channel his character’s frustrations, while others have also their perks and quirks.
Comedy might be underestimated as a genre, since it is quite hard to do it properly and the trick is to make it look easy and effortless. In that and every other sense, “Extreme Job” is an enormous success with a high score for laughs and probably one of the best and most hilarious comedies in years. The success is even bigger having in mind that Korean cinema is not usually known for that kind of comedies. Well, maybe the filmmakers should have tried it earlier, but it is never too late.