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It’s hard to imagine anyone getting overly enthusiastic about the Korean film “Les Formidables” after seeing the horribly generic DVD cover, which features two macho but pained looking men handcuffed together, one of whom is most likely a corrupt cop, and the other a strangely moral criminal. These two figures have become almost as ubiquitous as the long haired female ghost in Korean cinema, and whilst there is no denying that the country has been responsible for some of the best gritty thrillers of the last few years, the set up is rapidly out staying its welcome. Further hampered by a bizarre and pointlessly French title for its international release, which has nothing much to do with anything, all things considered, “Les Formidables” gets off to a pretty bad start.
This is a real shame, as the film turns out to be far better than initial expectations, and is superior to the majority of its brethren mainly due to the fact that director Jo Min Ho (a long time industry veteran, whose last effort was the gangster comedy “Jungle Juice” back in 2002) never loses sight of the fact that he is in fact making a thriller. Whereas similar films have drowned in angst over the unfairness of societal corruption and moral lassitude, Jo quite wisely spices things up with plenty of violent action and a set of quirky, likeable character.
Initial suspicions regarding the cover turn out to be correct, as the film starts with corrupt homicide detective Sung Woo (actor Park Joong Hoon, also in “Two Cops” and “Nowhere to Hide”) shaking down a bar owner for money while his partner is killed outside by a deep voiced bald assassin on the run from a gangland hit. Su Hyeon (Chun Jeong Myung, an up and coming young star, recently in “The Aggressives” and the lame horror “R.U. Ready?”) is soon thrown into the fray as an ex-gang member who is blamed for the cop’s murder and thrown in jail. Determined to clear his name, he breaks out of prison, and after circumstances conspire to bring the two men together, he takes Sung Woo as a hostage to help him escape. Sure enough, the two overcome their initial antagonism and pool their resources to tackle the common enemy.
Although “Les Formidables” may not sound particularly promising on the basis of the above synopsis, the opening scenes mark out director Jo’s intent pretty clearly, as he throws in some great martial arts brawling and motorbike stunt work. The action quotient is kept high throughout, with plenty of violent scenes of fisticuffs, gun battles and even swordplay, most of it drenched with blood. The film also features some excellent, breath taking stunts, including one CGI enhanced car crash which is quite incredible.
Through this, Jo more than makes up for the film’s lack of moral complexity when compared with the likes of “Running Wild”, giving “Les Formidables” an edgy, exciting feel painfully absent in so many other would-be police thrillers which have been far more concerned with long faces and shoe gazing than blowing things up. Similarly, the pace is kept fast throughout, helped by a lively soundtrack and some stylish direction, including some well used split screen work which for once actually has a practical purpose.
The film also benefits from a great set of characters, none of whom are conventional, despite the undeniably generic plot. Sung Woo is a truly wretched figure, an alcoholic parasite with alarming suicidal tendencies, and his relationship with the violent but basically decent Su Hyeon gives the film an effective emotional core. Since the two are both likeable, despite being quite obviously crazy, the viewer finds it easy to root for them, and their inevitable bonding emerges in a natural, amusing fashion.
As such, “Les Formidables” rises above the unavoidable criticisms of over familiarity, simply by the virtue of being hugely entertaining. Packed with thrills and unburdened by the all too common excessive melodrama of its peers, it makes for energetic, entertaining viewing and deserves to be more widely seen than it, unfortunately, probably will be.
Min-Ho Cho (director) / Yeong-hwan Choi, Min-Ho Cho, Jung-woo Son, Jung-hoon Sung (screenplay)
CAST: Jeong-myeong Cheon …. Lee Su-hyun
Joong-Hoon Park …. Sung-woo