'A Violent Prosecutor' ('Geom-sa-we-jeon'): Film Review

A Violent Prosecutor - Still 1 -H 2016
Courtesy of Showbox
A high-energy, logic-defying romp.

South Korean A-lister Hwang Jung-min stars in Lee Il-hyung's revenge caper about a jailed lawyer plotting against his corrupted former boss.

A falsely convicted and imprisoned attorney teams with a showy con-man to secure freedom in A Violent Prosecutor, a blockbuster once expected to become the biggest local hit in South Korea in 2016 — until the record-breaking Train to Busan chugged along. Combining the homegrown Oldboy's aggrieved-avenger premise with the Ocean's Eleven-aping caper antics drawn from across the pond, Lee Il-hyung's directorial debut offers a whirlwind of snazzy, crowd-pleasing drama, along with charismatic performances from the ever-bankable Hwang Jung-min (Ode to My Father, Veteran) and the photogenic Gang Dong-won (My Brilliant Life, Kundo: Age of the Rampant).

A dynamic mix that just about covers the narrative's lack of legal and political logic, A Violent Prosecutor made its case at the New York Asian Film Festival and Montreal's Fantasia fest in July, following its domestic release in February and then a limited run in California immediately afterwards. While a wide release is probably off the cards now, Lee's film could probably bank on Hwang's appeal to score further success in Asian markets (the film opens next month in Hong Kong) and then at genre-themed programs before attaining some circulation in the ancillary market.

Continuing where he left off in Veteran, Hwang plays Byun Jae-wook, a highly temperamental prosecutor whose professional dedication leads him to stray violently from the norm at work: This is a man who sleeps in the office and is ready to jump up and give suspects a mighty thrashing in front of his awestruck underlings. His personality quickly brings about his downfall, as he's framed for killing a hoodlum detained for clubbing a cop in an environmentalist demonstration turned ugly by infiltrated gangsters. Swiftly cut adrift by his boss Yoo Jong-gil (Lee Sung-min) and his colleagues, Byun is slapped with a 15-year sentence for murder.

Belying the film's title, however, Byun's violent streak stops there. Rather than buffing himself up to confront his new rugged circumstances — the warden is in cahoots with his tormentors outside, and many an inmate has once fallen afoul of him in court — Byun uses his brains to get himself out of trouble. Repeatedly beaten to a pulp and denied the chance to file for a retrial, Byun slowly gets his guards on his side by advising them on legal matters; as the narrative skips ahead five years, he has become some kind of royalty by being the go-to guy for solutions to problems inside and outside prison.

Seemingly resigned to serving his sentence, Byun rekindles his fury when he overhears a new arrival repeating the same ecological spiel he last heard from the ruffian whose death landed him in prison. Recollections from the charming con-man, Han Chi-won (Gang), reveal how Byun was made a scapegoat to protect the criminal cartel linking the political elite, big business and the judiciary. Thus begin Byun's plans for retribution, as he uses his professional knowledge to spring Chi-won out of jail and then have him charm and swindle his way through a masterplan designed to prove his own innocence and then bring the real culprits to justice.

Always rough and ready for a verbal or physical spar, Hwang delivers yet another solid turn as the aggrieved and battle-hardened protagonist — a final court scene even allows him to flex his melodramatic muscles, as he challenges his nemesis while pleading guilty to his misdemeanor as a prosecutor.

Given that he's stuck in prison for most of his screen time, Hwang shares the limelight with Gang, who seems to be having all the fun here with his fraudster character's never-ending put-ons. Playing a fist-thumping American-educated playboy one minute, a suave bespectacled lawyer the next and then a heartbroken man asking his girlfriend to forget him right after — if A Violent Prosecutor is indeed an Ocean's film, Gang would have been the Brad Pitt and Matt Damon characters rolled into one.

Just like the Ocean's Trilogy or its Korean equivalent, The Thieves, A Violent Prosecutor is first and foremost a rollercoaster ride through a land of outlandish gags and improbable setups. Big holes are aplenty in how Byun could be so easily framed, and the same goes for the plausibility of his remote-controlled machinations for his big revenge — not to mention the sturdy bond between Byun and Han. But the solid presence of the two leads saves the day, and the editing duo of Kim Jae-bum and Kim Sang-bum — the latter the regular cutter for Park Chan-wook (Oldboy) and action-movie auteur Ryoo Seung-won (Veteran, The Berlin File) — has certainly helped the rookie director to condense the story into one high-energy romp.

Production companies: Moonlight Film, Sanai Pictures in a Showbox presentation
Cast: Hwang Jung-min, Gang Dong-won, Lee Sung-min
Director-screenwriter: Lee Il-hyung
Producers: Han Jae-duk, Yun Jong-bin
Executive producers: You Jeong-hun
Director of photography: Choi Chan-min
Production designer: Elhen Park
Costume designer: Cho Sang-kyung, Cho Hee-ran
Editors: Kim Sang-bum, Kim Jae-bum
Music: Hwang Sang-jun
Sales: Showbox
U.S. distributor: Dreamwest

In Korean

Not rated, 126 minutes