After busting open an international criminal ring exporting stolen cars, major crimes detective Seo Do-cheol (Hwang Jung-min) discovers that a truck driver friend has apparently committed suicide in the offices of a major corporation. His suspicions are aroused when he discovers that his friend was recently fired after being involved in a labour dispute with the contractor hired by Jo Tae-oh (Yoo Ah-in), the arrogant, young heir to a powerful family business. As Seo delves further he faces obstructions from all levels within and outside his department as Jo uses his power and influence to try to silence Seo’s investigation. After an attempt on detective Seo’s life a collision course is set between the unstoppable Seo and the untouchable Jo.
An unashamedly populist film, Veteran is also a very entertaining and funny police procedural, despite the serious subject matter. Ryoo depicts the social realities in Korean society today where powerful institutions, both public and private, ride roughshod over the lives and rights of those at the bottom of society. Through the character of Seo, a level of wish fulfilment on the part of the audience is fulfilled, as the determined cop sets about bringing the untouchables to justice.
What elevates the script above its peers though is the two larger-than-life protagonists, Seo and his nemesis Cho. Hwang, a bona fide star in South Korea, makes excellent use of his musical theatre background moving with cat-like grace around the screen, in the many thrilling action scenes. In his portrayal of the righteous detective Seo he is charisma personified, quick to smile but equally quick with his fists when necessary. When not dishing out a beating to criminals he berates and assaults his fellow corrupt policemen (as he tells one of his crooked colleagues, “We live for the pride, but not for the money”). One restaurant scene where Jo is embarrassed in front of his business associates by Seo calls to mind Eddie Murphy as Axel Foley in Beverly Hills Cop. Both the characters of Seo and Foley are mischievous at heart; they share a strong moral sense but are also not above bending the rules when it suits their interests.
If there can be any criticism of Veteran, then it would be towards the one-dimensional character of Cho who is pitched at the pantomime level of villainous. Yoo Ah-in is perfectly cast as the boo-hiss villain, but virtually every scene he occupies is geared towards depicting the cocaine-addicted, enfant terrible as truly sociopathic and irredeemable (and by extension the political elite who attempt to conceal his criminal behaviour). Forcing a child to watch his father being pummelled into submission is one of many such examples. Of course this merely serves the purpose of setting up the showdown between Seo and Cho and it delivers the catharsis that one expects.
A talented martial artist in his own right (as anyone who has seen his lead turn in City of Violence can attest) Ryoo easily stages several thrilling action scenes, but what he shows in Veteran is his ability to serve up a dose of pure cinematic escapism filtered through a beating socialist heart. At the recent UK premiere of Veteran, director Ryoo Seung-wan advised the audience to eat their popcorn before the film started as they would not have time to do so during the rollercoaster ride that was about to unfold. It turned out to be very apt advice and a most enjoyable ride.
Review by Mark Byrnes