Don Lee, known here better by his Korean name Ma Dong-seok, has a unique place in Korean cinema. Never before had a muscle-bound, middle-aged man -- who looks like he could move a tank with his right hook -- become the image of “cuddly and cute.” What’s more bizarre is that he built the image not by playing family-friendly roles, but by bashing bad guys’ brains on screen.
Comparisons of Lee to pro wrestling superstar and Hollywood darling Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson abound, but there is actually a better comparison: The Hulk. Both are absolute brutes who look terrifying, but there is something very likeable and cathartic about the way they put aside everything else and focus on just wreaking havoc, but for good.
“The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos” (CJ Entertainment)
“The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos” -- based on characters and the world of OCN TV drama “Bad Guys” -- is an action film with a simple plot and one-dimensional characters. But it is extremely entertaining because of such loveable characters and the great action, centered around Lee’s massive presence.
The story takes place sometime after events of TV’s “Bad Guys,” a drama series about maverick policeman Oh Gu-tak (Kim Sang-joong) putting together a team of incarcerated criminals to catch evildoers in return for reduced jail time. Legendary gangster Park Woong-cheol (Lee) is back behind bars, and Oh is bed-ridden, struck down by liver cancer.
The “mad dogs” are called upon once again when a police bus flips over in an accident caused by a mysterious figure, unleashing some of the country’s most notorious criminals. Short-handed, Park and Oh are joined by new members: Go Yoo-sung (Jang Ki-yong), a former hot-headed policeman incarcerated for killing a suspect; and Gwak No-Sun (Kim Ah-joong), a femme fatale con artist with a keen knowledge of the criminal world and an innate sense of survival.
The badassedness and loveable dunce nature of Lee’s character is critical to loving the film. Lee is famous for joining these two seemingly incompatible character traits, which works to perfection in the role of Park Woong-cheol.
Simply put, this is Lee at his best.
“The Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos” (CJ Entertainment)
But he is not the only character to shine here. Kim Sang-joong plays a John McClane-esque die-hard, down-on-his-luck cop, but more pessimistic and cynical. His gritty essence provides a rallying point for both the team and the story in this picaresque film.
The new characters do not leave as big an impression as the original two. While all the characters are by-the-book, Lee and Kim bring unparalleled energy and charm to their characters.
That is not to say that the characters of Go and Gwak are boring. They are predictable, but Go’s dogged tenacity and Gwak’s slimy charm are enjoyable.
While the villains are generic, the structure of the story makes it fun even without a complex antagonist. The film plays out a lot like a video game, with the main characters punching their way through the plot. It works because the main villain looks menacing and scary enough and the subvillain is pleasantly hateful.
The premise of a team of outlaws fighting for good is perhaps more than reminiscent of “The A-Team,” another popular TV series-turned-movie.
But while both have attractive larger-than-life characters that sometimes operate in a morally gray area, “The A-Team” is focused more on the teamwork and brilliant tactics of its leader. The charm of “Bad Guys,” on the other hand, is centered more on the individual characteristics and blunt action.
While the film perfectly captures the essence of the original TV series, it does not really add anything new. It felt a lot like an extensive episode of the original show, relying on the old formula to win the hearts of the viewers -- which it certainly did.
Their charm notwithstanding, the two new members feel like stand-ins for Lee Jung-moon and Jung Tae-soo. Kim and Jang both give admirable performance, but the viewers may end up preferring the other pair, just because they spent more time with Lee and Jung.
Overall, the film plays it a little too safe. It sticks to its original material and focuses on entertaining people, based on the time-tested old formula. But it doesn’t take any chances, or try to add deeper layers. That is why it is a good film, but not a great one.
Although advertised as a crime drama, this is essentially a superhero film. When we see evil in this world, there is that politically incorrect feeling that we want to beat the life out of it. Seeing superpowered vigilantes do just that gives us an odd satisfaction: finally seeing justice served.
While not donning cloaks, “Bad Guys: Reign of Chaos” is satisfying in the way that superhero films are. With several spinoffs already, “Bad Guys” may be the closest thing to a superhero franchise Korea has yet.
The fact that Don Lee is basically The Hulk in the flesh is an added bonus, which pumps up expectations for seeing him play Gilgamesh in the actual Hollywood superhero film “The Eternals,” slated for next year.
In either the Marvel Cinematic Universe or a likely sequel of “Bad Guys,” I would never say no to the sight of “Don Lee! Smash!”
By Yoon Min-sik (email@example.com)