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Grand Heist, The
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by Jay Seaver

"Frozen Pond's Eleven."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2013 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: For all the noir, caper, and pulp material I've consumed in my life, I don't know how many times I've ever actually heard someone refer to the jewels they were looking to steal as "ice", and I don't know if that's part of the vernacular in Korean. Even taking that as a given, the gimmick of "The Grand Heist" - a rag-tag group of thieves who are actually looking to steal big blocks of ice - still makes me grin. That it turns out to be a pretty entertaining caper movie on its own doesn't hurt.

It's not a silly thing - ice was a precious commodity in 19th-century Korea, and Baek Dong-soo (Oh Ji-ho) takes his job guarding it very seriously. Lee Duk-moo (Cha Tae-hyun), on the other hand, is more interested in books than anything else; he spends his time minding and practically living in the book store of Mr. Yang (Lee Moon-sik) while he travels the world. When the previously-antagonistic Duk-moo and Dong-soo are framed them for a crime that Minister Cho Yung-chul (Kim Ku-taek) him consolidate his hold on the government's ice-distribution business. He doesn't anticipate Duk-moo deciding to fight back and using everything he's ever read to hatch a plan that makes use of not just Dong-soo's fighting skills, but explosives expert Suk Dae-hyun (Shin Jung-keun), master of disguise Kim Jae-jun (Song Jong-ho), transport specialist Kim Chul-joo (Kim Gil-dong), disgraced archaeologist Hong Suk-chang (Ko Chang-seok), and information source Yoo Sul-hwa (Lee Chae-young).

There are two things an audience wants this sort of movie to do well: First, it has to set up a robbery that is sufficiently complex to take up a full-length feature but whose parts can be grasped fairly readily - and which can be swapped out by last-minute snafus or hidden for double-crosses and surprises - and which the audience doesn't really mind happening. Then it must assemble a team to do it which is a lot of fun, both in terms of the odd couple leading things and the entertaining array of specialists who help out. It's a tricky balance; the whole thing is no fun if the plot is simple, but make things too complex and not only does one risk losing the audience, but the things that must happen off-screen just to save time and preserve a few surprises start to feel unfair. Kim Min-sung's script turns out to be a nicely balanced thing; everybody's got their part to play, and while there are some surprises and reversals later on, it never feels like cheating.

Add a smooth directorial hand like Kim Joo-ho's, and you're in business. Director Kim has to juggle roughly a dozen characters, and nobody ever feels underused even as Duk-moo and Dong-soo are clearly the main attractions. There aren't a lot of big action scenes, but both the one where Dong-soo is framed for a disaster and the all-hands-on-deck finale make fun use of the scale he's working on, and he's just as adept when the story calls for sneaking around. He's committed to a light tone early - Dong-soo won't participate if he thinks anybody will get hurt, much less killed - and while he does ramp up a sense of danger as things go along, the movie is always much more fun than sinister.

That's in part due to the fun supporting cast - Shin Jung-keun and Ko Chang-seok are especially fun comic relief as the deaf explosives expert and a gassy, distractable tomb raider - but the movie needs and gets solid grounding from its stars. Cha Tae-hyun and Oh Ji-ho seem to have fun inverting the classic set-up, with Oh's action hero serving as the sidekick to Cha's wacky schemer rather than vice versa, and neither of them goes so far that the heroes can't be individuals. Lee Chae-young and Min Hyo-rin are enjoyable as their respective love interests, and Kim Hyang-gi and Cheon Bo-keun don't come close to sinking things as the kids who wind up attached to this gang.

If there's a flaw (beyond trying to make an anachronistic "okay!" work as a catchphrase), it's with how much time Director Kim and Writer Kim spend setting up the antagonists. While they may play much less confusingly to Korean audiences than Western ones, and they actually do a good job of making the actions of a nineteenth-century Korean monarchy an easy metaphor for the incestuous relationship between government and contractors in a modern democracy, it's actually some time before the good guys are teaming up and getting together, and the story only really needs one guy to serve as a target at the end. When you've already got so many characters on the heroes' side, there's a good argument for one alpha villain and a bunch of interchangeable thugs.

That's a quibble, though; the rest of the movie is pretty much the breezy fun it hopes to be. "The Grand Heist" is deliberately lightweight, for sure, but capers don't need much moral complexity when the shell games they'll wind up playing are tricky enough.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=25463&reviewer=371
originally posted: 10/11/13 22:28:11
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2013 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Joo-ho Kim

Written by
  Min-sung Kim

Cast
  Tae-hyun Cha
  Ji-ho Oh
  Hyo-rin Min
  Chae-young Lee



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