By Aaron Rourke (Melbourne, Australia)
With the painfully unfunny, instantly forgettable action/comedy The Hitman’s Bodyguard currently topping the box-office charts, there is another film doing the rounds that mixes the two genres with far greater skill, while also giving audiences two main characters who are actually interesting and likeable.
We are first introduced to Ki-joon (Park Seo-joon) and Hee-Yeol (Kang Ha-neul) as they are saying goodbye to their parents, before entering the Korean National Police University (KNPU) to begin an intense two week examination process, so the instructors can assess who is worthy to undergo four years of cadet training. Hee-Yeol is warmly farewelled by his mother, while Ki-joon has an awkward send-off with his father, and it isn’t long before the newbies begin to get on each other’s nerves. The former is a studious, A+ student who wants to do something different than his MIT-obsessed friends, while the latter is at KNPU simply because the tuition is paid for, as his father can’t afford to send him to college.
Eighteen months after the culling process, Ki-joon and Hee-Yeol have eventually become friends, and during their first night on leave, manage to make their way into an exclusive night club (complete with K-Pop cameos). The evening doesn’t go well however, as they are turned down by just about every female patron.
Deciding to call it a night, the two begin to walk towards the nearest form of transport, but are quickly distracted by the attractive young woman (Lee Ho-jung) who passes by. Deciding to follow her, both cadets are nervous about who should go and ask this stranger for her phone number, but while they are discussing this, the woman is suddenly kidnapped by a mysterious group parked nearby in a black van.
Shocked, Ki-joon and Hee-Yeol unsuccessfully try to chase the van down. But after encountering bureaucracy and red tape first-hand when they try and report the incident to police, the cadets, remembering what they have been taught so far at the Police University, decide to crack the case themselves.
Like many buddy flicks, Midnight Runners does follow a familiar blueprint. The mismatched pair who initially hate each other, but gradually grow to respect one another, overcoming their differences (and underdog status) to confront whatever crisis has crossed their path. But within that predictable framework is a refreshing amount of detail, developing both story and character in a way that gives this specific scenario some kind of individual distinction. It may not be groundbreaking cinema, but those behind the camera realise that work still needs to be done to genuinely earn the audience’s interest and affection.
Writer/director Kim Joo-hwan, who received positive attention on the film festival circuit with his low budget 2013 drama Koala, confidently moves into the mainstream arena here, giving the crowd what they want, but not at the expense of the finer intricacies that can give a film that much-needed spark. The move from comedy, to action, to drama is assured and seamless, which is just as well, as the case that the young officers-in-training stumble upon is quite bleak and gruesome.
Along with Kim’s intelligent handling of the material, what also sets the movie apart is its casting, and is a perfect example of how great chemistry can truly take a film to the next level. Whether they’re arguing with each other over canteen sausages, or uniting to fight a formidable enemy, Park (The Beauty Inside, She Was Pretty, Hwarang) and Kang (Twenty, Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet, Like for Likes, Entourage) always play off each other beautifully. Both actors have built up quite a following in South Korea through film and TV, and one hopes that this delightful pairing sees their careers push through into the big time.
Sung Dong-il (The Accidental Detective, The King, Because I Love You) convincingly portrays the veteran officer-turned-university professor Yang, who is equally impressed and exasperated by his students’ antics, and there is also solid support from Bae Yoo-ram (The Advocate: A Missing Body, Socialphobia) and Go Joon (The Age of Shadows, Luck-Key). Park Ha-sun (Champ, Love Clinique) is terrific as hardline instructor Joo-hee (who even has the nickname Medusa, due to the stern glares she gives her hapless students), but one wishes she had more screen time, as the actress commands the screen every time she appears.
With its impressively staged action and excellent comic timing, Midnight Runners is the kind of film one wishes could be seen by a wider audience in the west. While films like The Hitman’s Bodyguard does its best to bury the buddy picture, this helps keep the enduring genre alive and well, and at the end of it all, states that the Midnight Runners will be back. After entry number one, I very much look forward to their return.