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Public Enemy

Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 09/03/05 18:17:12

"Makes for a killer double feature with 'Infernal Affairs.'"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Ah, the dirty cop. Where would the movies be without him? Sometimes the dirty cop can be used for biting social commentary (“Dirty Harry,” for example); sometimes he’s simply brought around as the center of a thrilling police actioner. If there’s any commentary to be found in the South Korean hit “Public Enemy,” it certainly doesn’t translate across the ocean - to my American eyes, this one’s just a grand exercise in crime thrills, held together by one badass detective.

Sol Kyung-gu is Detective Kang, whom we first meet as he praises the virtues of the police officer as hardworking public servant - praise he quickly follows with: “I’m a cop, too, but I don’t do any of that stuff.” Sure enough, his partner, fearing an Internal Affairs investigation, kills himself, but instead of reporting the incident, Kang grabs a bag full of cash and runs like hell. He doesn’t seem to mind dealing drugs on the side, either. In other words, this guy’s not much of a hero.

But he is a man who can hold a grudge like nobody’s business. So when Kang discovers that the man who cut his face on rainy night is also the person wanted for a brutal slaying, he jumps all over the case. To bring a killer to justice, or to nab personal vengeance? With Kang, there doesn’t need to be a difference.

Balancing this story is the tale of the killer himself, a respectable, polished stock broker named Jo Kyu-hwan (Lee Sung-jae), whose cold, slick exterior hides the uncontrollable rage of a monster. Lee’s performance here is a genuine shocker, chilling in its coolness; the film and the actor have learned much from such slickster movie villains as Hannibal Lector and Patrick Bateman. The hook of the plot, then, is that Kang knows that Jo is guilty, but has no proof, just a gut feeling and the fact that Jo’s jaw line resembles that of the man who cut him the night of the murder. And so, we watch as Kang begins harassing this upstanding citizen, desperate for evidence. It’s the city’s worst cop against its best civilian.

“Public Enemy” is, if nothing else, a schizophrenic affair, jumping between serious police procedural, offbeat character comedy, hardcore action frenzy, and vicious serial killer thriller, often within the same scene. There’s a delicious sense that the filmmakers are relishing this style, which frees them to take the story in all sorts of wild directions. (Four writers are credited with the screenplay, and director Kang Woo-suk is responsible for roping it all together.)

The film takes far too long to get where it’s going - at 138 minutes, it’s at least a half hour too long - and it rambles a bit too much due to the try-anything style, but the fact that it relies deeply on the kinetic energy of its main character means that even when things are going nowhere, they’re always going somewhere, if you follow me. The whole affair gets us to lean in and keep watching, waiting for the next big thrill, the next big laugh. Hey, you never know when Kang’s going to pick up a guy by the nuts and start hitting other guys with him. Which, I assure you, he does here. I’m just not telling when.

The sheer unpredictability of it, the fact that you never know what mood the story will be in next, is what keeps “Public Enemy” sailing ahead briskly. Even in its darkest corners, the movie maintains its sense of fun, crashing us from idea to idea with a wink in its eye and a smirk on its face. Bad cops everywhere will be duly impressed.

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