Kim Yoo-jin's "Wild Card" certainly won't be winning any plaudits for its great originality or for pushing the envelope in cinematic narrative technique—or indeed, for anything else, I would guess. But it does at least distinguish itself among the most recent crop of Korean flicks I've sat through, in one area alone: it doesn't in any way strive to emulate the style of either Guy Ritchie or Quentin Tarantino! We can applaud it for that one small thing at least.
In fact, this leisurely-paced police drama nostalgically harks back to Hollywood's early-'80s cop-buddy movie obsession, and while other net reviewers (no doubt due to their youthful ages) have cited contemporary U.S. TV police dramas such as "CSI" as the standard to which "Wild Card" aspires (and conspicuously falls well short of reaching), I was reminded more of groundbreaking police 'soap' "Hill Street Blues". This programme would doubtless also seem rather slow and meandering if compared directly to the rather more savvy sophistication that modern TV drama has since attained, but, the fact remains that, like 'HSB' in its hay-day, "Wild Card" builds quite a likeable series of astute portraits of a precinct full of floundering, overworked, over-stressed Police colleagues, struggling against the twin foes of overweening police bureaucracy and their own very human failings to bring order to the neon-soaked streets of Seoul.
The film takes its own sweet time getting to 'the point' and then takes even longer dancing around it before the inevitable conclusion is reached. But the journey is actually rather enjoyable, and there are a few unexpected wrinkles along the way that add some spice to an otherwise quite prosaic formula. The film first establishes the expected buddy movie genre conventions: veteran Oh Yung-dahl (Jung Jin-young) has been assigned overeager rookie Bang Jay-soo (Yang Dong-geun) for his new partner after his previous sidekick was killed on the streets. Oh Yung-dahl is himself under investigation for shooting a suspect during the incident in which his partner died, and has been relieved of his firearm while the internal police investigation proceeds. During the course of the first hour of this two-hour film, we get to see, in a series of loosely connected sequences, something of Oh and Bang's developing relationship: Oh's recent experience has made him cautious and eager to play things 'by the book', while the more headstrong Bang is always straining at the leash, desperate to get stuck in. As well as this central relationship, we also get to know their Lieutenant (Ki Joo-bong), an avuncular figure whose world-weary persona gives him a slightly tragicomic air, but who is respected by his squad despite their constant Mickey taking.
Not quite as sympathetically portrayed is the corpulent Detective Shim (Han Chae-young). There seems to be a de facto convention in a lot of Asian cinema that unthinkingly associates obesity with moral or intellectual turbidity or both; and "Wild Card" continues in the tradition. Shim gets pilloried by Bang for his small-scale corruption and a general turn-a-blind-eye attitude; and, of course, when it comes to chasing down criminals, the podgy Detective is next to useless! But the film does tacitly make amends at the end for this artless stereotyping by having Shim (rather uncharacteristically, it has to be said) suddenly becoming heroic when the chips are really down.
We also get to see something of our two main protagonists' private lives during the film's first hour: Oh is a simple family man with a lovely wife (who runs a flower delivery business) and a cute young daughter, while Bang is obsessed with a statuesque beauty (Han Chae-young) he sees leaving her gym every day, but who displays next to no tolerance for his excruciatingly strained (and comical) attempts in the art of wooing. All this may seem rather feeble, but a noteworthy variant on the usual 'cop's wife' persona is displayed here; while usually in western drama, the wives or girlfriends of cops are portrayed as intolerant of the strain the job inevitably puts on their relationship, Oh's wife in contrast, not only understands the pressures, but nonchalantly shrugs off regular crank phone calls from an assortment of killers, thugs and rapists whom her husband once had put away, but who've since been released back onto the streets!
A gentle and rather homespun humour, and the film's unhurried, meandering attitude to pacing, seems to promise little and—for a good deal of the running time—lead nowhere. But, periodically punctuating all this fine, likeable characterisation is a dark, violent aspect to the film. During these brief episodes we see a disenfranchised, immoral band of thugs skulking around the darker streets and byways of Seoul, reigning down extreme violence and fear upon the heads of the city's most vulnerable inhabitants. It starts with a middle-aged woman, alone at night on the subway, getting assaulted by way of the surly gang leader's favoured mode of attack: a heavy metal ball on a chain which he swings menacingly around his head as a prelude to shattering his victims' skulls from behind: they are usually dead before they hit the ground. (These sequences are among the most wince-inducing scenes of violence I've seen in any film of late, despite not being immensely graphic in their nature!) Soon, our flawed but well-meaning cast of law-enforcing protagonists are hot on the case—but getting nowhere fast! To add insult to injury, Oh and Bang only just miss the gang on several occasions: one time they drive unwittingly past as the hoods commit a rape; and on another occasion they exit a convenience store just after an old man is brutally murdered on the same spot.
The fact that the gang concentrate their nefarious violent activities exclusively on old people and beautiful young women helps to get the audience in a suitably frenzied state of "Death Wish" style fervour for vengeance, of course—and by the time they've murdered two women at a karaoke bar (one by the traditional "spinning metal ball" method and the other by repeatedly smashing a table-full of glasses and bottles over the victim’s head), the authorities are close enough behind the gang as to finally bring together all the multifarious plot strands and themes that have been so assiduously assembled for the previous one-and-a-half hours. The final half hour even manages to connect Bang's attempted love affair with the girl at the gym to the rest of the plot when it is revealed (somewhat conveniently for narrative symmetry!) that she is actually a police pathologist! (She is brought into the case after the murder of the two women at the karaoke bar.) In what could have been a piece of needless, over-the-top whimsy that, actually, comes over as rather moving, it is revealed that she likes to talk to the corpses of the victims as she examines them for clues, sympathising with them for the undeserved violence and fear that must have marred their final moments. The film finishes up in rather predictable fashion, it's true; but the unusual mixture of brutality and violence with gentle comedy and sympathetic characterisation works uncommonly well. There are a few odd moments (the foppish effeminacy of a criminal syndicates leader, who is unwillingly drafted-in to help the investigation, for instance), but in general this is a successful, entertaining throwback to comedy-drama buddy movies of old, that doesn't insult the viewer's intelligence even if it’s not doing anything profoundly new or necessary.
The U.K. DVD from Third Window offers an acceptable anamorphic widescreen transfer with 5.1 audio, but little in the way of extras: just trailers for the film and other Third Window titles.