The Korean comic sensation that is “Tajja” first exploded onto the silver screen with director Choi Dong-hoon’s smash 2006 hit “Tazza: The High Rollers”, which featured an all-star cast in a gripping, dark tale set in the underground gambling world of the Korean card game Hwatu. The film went on to win numerous accolades and still ranks among the Top 50 highest-grossing Korean films of all time. Naturally, the successful film spawned a tv-drama followup and a sequel in 2014’s “Tazza: The Hidden Card”, a film that was so below mediocre and such an evident cash grab that it seemed to have heralded the end of the franchise on-screen. But now, 5 years later, director Kwon Oh-kwang attempts to reshuffle the cards and literally change the game with “Tazza: One-Eyed Jack”.

Doh Il-chool is a disinterested student, but an exceptional gambler who is very adept at reading people in poker. One night at the gambling den, he meets Madonna, a beautiful woman whose mere acquaintance seems to be inviting trouble. Sure enough, Il-chool ends up losing a lot of borrowed money to her sugar-daddy boyfriend and when his creditors are beating him black and blue for non-repayment, he is saved by the enigmatic and mysterious Aekku, or One-Eye. Aekku claims to have known Il-chool’s late father, himself a tazza, one of the best gamblers in the country, and proclaims he saved Il-chool because he had a debt to pay his father. 

Aekku, you see, has a scheme to make a lot of money at the gambling table and needs Il-chool’s help. Easily swayed by Aekku’s mysterious air and lavish life, Il-chool joins his gang, which involves smooth-talking conman and shuffle king Kkachi, master Go player and swindler Mr. Kwon and Young-mi, a stunning actress with a deft slight-of-hand, as they play out a plan that will bring them face to face with a vast payout, a formidable enemy and Il-chool’s past.

“Tazza: One-Eyed Jack” stays true to the formula laid out by the original comic and the first film and features a team of misfits getting together to swindle a target out of a vast sum of money in a gamble that is not only about the money but also about revenge for its central character. This is, however, where the film’s connection to its source material ends. None of the characters are from the comic, unlike the first two films, while Kwon Oh-kwang opts for a much lighter tone compared to the first film and also moves the action from the confusing flower-card game of hwatu to the more accessible poker table. As a result, the suspenseful games played out feel fresh and exciting, even more thrilling, further enhanced by Byun Bang-sun’s bright cinematography and Bang Jun-seok’s music. As a “Tazza” film, of course it features crosses and double-crosses aplenty, but they are for the most part unpredictable. A strong comedic vein also runs through the film, particularly in the first half, mostly thanks to seasoned comedy actor Lee Kwang-soo, who plays Magpie. 

That is not to say that the film is without faults though. Running at 139 minutes, one would think that it would take its time to develop its characters but with the exception of Il-chool, the rest of the characters are woefully developed. As a result, the film feels needlessly long and even though it just about manages to keep attention from waning, it could have done with a much more stricter edit. The character of Madonna, in particular, though cataclysmic in terms of the story’s progression, is the one that suffers the most, so badly developed to the point of being annoying every time she’s on screen. The exits of a lot of the characters before the film’s final third are also very abrupt and make their absence felt, because the climactic game, though high on stakes, feels a bit of a letdown.

What doesn’t let the film down though is its big-name star cast. 2019 is the year Park Jung-min shed his sweet boy-next-door vibe, first with the villainous role in the horror film “Svaha: The Sixth Finger” and he is in fine form here too as the profusely swearing, gambling Il-chool, pulling off the swagger needed for the role well. Another actor who had an equally successful year is Lee Kwang-soo, who, after “Inseparable Bros” earlier, also makes the most of his frankly rarely afforded extended screen time as Kkachi. Veteran actor Kwon Hae-hyo as Mr. Kwon and the two females Lim Ji-yeon as Young-mi and Choi Yu-hwa as Madonna suffer from badly developed characters, leaving not much scope for them to show their skills. Woo Hyun as Mool, a greedy, perverse man and the gang’s target is very enjoyable. However, it is Ryoo Seung-bum who seems to be having the most fun as the suave, Jesus-lookalike Aekku, leaving the biggest impression in the limited screen time allocated to him.

“Tazza: One-Eyed Jack” ends up being a high-stakes, high-gains entry into the franchise which, while never reaching the staggering heights of the first film, easily manages to far surpass the second film and, despite its flaws, remains a worthy effort that passes the “Tazza” torch forward to a newer generation. Oh, and be sure to stay for “Tazza: The High Rollers” director Choi Dong-hoon’s cameo in the post-credits scene!

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