There’s something about crooks pulling off a perfect crime that is so satisfying to watch. I’ve recently been following the OCN drama 38 Task Force, and it definitely reawakens my fascination with stories where bad guys become heroes.
First, a little intro about 38 Task Force (aka Police Unit 38/ 38 Squad/ 38 Revenue Collection Unit). Seo In-guk plays a con man that teams up with a tax collection chief (Ma Dong-seok) to swindle money out of high-profile tax evaders. He doesn’t do it alone, though. He gathers a team of professional criminals to deceive their way into people’s pockets – one unlucky victim at a time. See, even a boring thing such as taxes can turn sexy when you have a felon onboard.
I don’t see this concept being used often in kdramaland (at least in recent years, I presume?), which is why I am cautiously optimistic about it. With only 6 episodes out as of this time, it’s too early to tell the success of the show; although so far I’m liking it. So while waiting for how the rest of the drama unfolds, let me revisit two Korean movies – other noteworthy productions in the crime/heist genre – that earned popularity in recent years: The Thieves and The Technicians. Unlike 38 Task Force, however, these films involve actual heists, and (due to the movie format) are obviously more snappy and action-packed.
Both film productions did very well in the box office, especially the star-studded film The Thieves. Dubbed as Korea’s version of Ocean’s Eleven, it remains to be one of the highest-grossing films in the history of South Korean cinema:
The Thieves (2012)
A gang of expert crooks composed of strategist Popeye (Lee Jung-jae), wirewalker Yenicall (Jun Ji-hyun), rope man Zampano (Kim Soo-hyun), and chameleon Chewing Gum (Kim Hae-sook), along with straight-from-prison safecracker Pepsi (Kim Hye-soo), head out to Macau for a lucrative job: steal the diamond Tear of the Sun (worth $30M) from a notorious Chinese crime lord. But in order to do so, they have to team up with mastermind Macao Park (Kim Yoon-seok) – Popeye and Pepsi’s old partner – and the Chinese thieves he assembled. It’s not going to be easy though, as big egos from all sides clash, and some lingering grudges can be sensed from the old trio.
The Technicians aka The Con Artists (2014)
Kim Woo-bin plays the brilliant safe-cracker and con artist who will attempt to steal $150M cash from the unbreakable safe hidden in the Incheon Customs. The catch: he must do this – and escape – in under 40minutes. Alongside him are counterfeiter/loyal partner Goo-in (Ko Chang-seok), and genius hacker Jong-bae (Lee Hyun-woo).
What makes these films so appealing? For starters, a killer combo of action and comedy somehow goes hand-in-hand with this theme (perhaps not always, but at least most of the time). In terms of plot, there are some elements you already can expect from a crime/heist production, apart from the apparent premise of attempting to get a highly valuable prize:
Crafty schemes. As viewers, we all expect that the criminals will succeed in the end. But the thrill is not on what happens. It’s all about how it happens; as the story takes us through a complicated sequence of events that must occur in perfect sync in order to be considered a success. It’s the cleverly revealed planning, backup planning, and quick-thinking that makes the old plot-line interesting every time. Only a higher level of intelligence could achieve such ingenious methods, which leaves audience amazed.
The sly and smooth leader. And in order to orchestrate the most elaborate plans, the mastermind is often (if not always) the slickest guy in town. Oftentimes too he’s also the most arrogant jerk around, perhaps partly because he’s more interesting that way; also partly because you need to have a high degree of self-confidence to accomplish such impossible undertakings. He may be on the wrong side of the law (and unapologetic about it), but his inherent magnetism captivates the audience.
The talented team. Crimes like these are never a one-man job. The lead is usually backed up by a team – big or small, depending on the tasks and skills required. While the supporting cast may not have as much screentime or character depth, each has a unique expertise that comes in handy and spices up the action.
The spectacular chase, and the detective who just won’t give up. Of course crooks would look way cooler when they outsmart the police on their tails. Which sounds pretty bad in real life, I know; but these criminals won’t seem much of a catch if no one bothers to apprehend them. The chase is a perfect opportunity to inject glossy shots and choreographed action sequences, along with heart-pounding close calls. And to spearhead said chase, there’s always gonna be that one unwavering detective who pursues them, to the point of developing a sort of an obsession (and sometimes a strange relationship?) with these criminals. But just when he thought he’s already figured everything out, he’d realize he’s one – or ten – steps behind. Much to the delight of us viewers.
The “real bad guy”. In this genre where good and bad kinda becomes relative, there’s always gonna be a “more evil” enemy, usually in the form of a more powerful mob boss. His role is to nudge the audience to root for the protagonists, as his sinister presence alone indirectly justifies that he deserves to be doublecrossed anyway. This character also throws in a counterattack or two that pumps even more adrenaline to the scenes.
The looming threat of betrayal. There’s always tension and distrust when you’re in a group of skilled crooks. Even if they’re people you somehow trust, you assume each person has some hidden agenda (because you yourself have one), and you’re always on your toes with your every move. It’s more exciting though if some betrayal actually ensues; and it is usually the case.
While everything seems formulaic and predictable in the story, the actual magic lies on the overall execution. Box office success is easily achievable in the hands of a capable director and a charismatic cast. In the case of The Thieves and The Technicians, both have managed to become well-received productions in their respective rights.
The Thieves has got everything going for them – from acclaimed director Choi Dong-hoon who helmed several other hit action flicks, to the ensemble of Asia’s A-listers bringing his scenario to life. More than the action sequences, the character interactions were the scenes enjoyable to watch. What I especially liked in this film was how badass the women were, taking their fair share of the limelight from the male cast.
As expected, this movie was action-packed and filled with plot twists along the way. Although the multiple character subplots rather felt like departures from the main story; with magnetic characters, it still somehow works. I love how actors seemed to have freedom to immerse in their roles, resulting in amazing chemistry and punches of comedy.
The Technicians to me, among other things, helped solidify Kim Woo-bin’s status in the industry. The story is pretty much centered on Kim Woo-bin’s character, and the actor carried the show (and I daresay the movie admissions) – with Lee Hyun-woo there to also light up the screen and Ko Chang-seok to provide reassurance as a dependable ally. Some plot twists and back stories shake things up, but overall it pretty much is an easy-watch with the straightforward approach to the story.
These two productions aren’t essentially such groundbreaking works in film making; but both are able to entertain and impress the audience in their own ways. What’s important is that viewers can sit back, enjoy the ride, and actually feel good about rooting for the bad guys once in a while.
Fan of the crime/heist theme? Have you seen these movies or any others in the genre?