Vigilantism has long been a popular theme in cinema, offering the chance to criticise the failings of the system whilst serving up visceral escapist thrills. These are universal themes, with the frustrations of the common man being pretty much the same across the world, as can be seen in Korean writer director Kim Cheol Han’s new thriller “Outlaw”. Inspired by real life events, it stars actor Gam Woo Sung (best known for his acclaimed performance in “King and the Clown”) in the lead as a cop who is pushed over the edge by injustice and personal tragedy.
Gam plays Jung Soo, a detective whose day to day work brings him into contact with some of the most despicable criminals that society has to offer, all too many of whom are often set free by the flawed justice system. Jung Soo finds a glimmer of hope when he marries and has a daughter with Ji Hyun (Lee Seung Min, recently in “Beastie Boys”) the victim of a particularly brutal crime. Sadly, their happiness is short lived, as the poor traumatized woman runs away with their child, only for the two to be murdered just before their reunion with Jung Soo. Together with a female detective called So Young (Jang Sin Yeong, Red Eye”), he tracks down the killers, only for them to be set free due to lack of evidence. Understandably enraged, Jung Soo sets in motion a daring campaign of vengeance against all those he holds responsible for his family’s death.
With films of this sort it is vital to create a sense of moral outrage in order to justify the protagonist’s rampage, and “Outlaw” certainly does that, setting out its stall early on during a gruesome first ten minutes which feature rape, murder, and even cannibalism. Kim Cheol Han does a good job of putting poor Jung Soo through the tortures of the damned, firstly through his experiences of injustice and later as his own life is torn apart. Thanks also to a superb, understated performance from Gam Woo Sung, it’s pretty much impossible not to feel sympathy for the poor man, as the film piles on him misery after misery, cruelly setting up his hopes for happiness before dashing them in the nastiest manner imaginable. The first hour or so of the film is amazingly bleak, gradually turning the screw until the viewer really does just expect the worst.
As such, it comes as a shock when the film suddenly shifts gears and for the last half hour transforms from a depressing, though gripping exploration of human evil, to a fast paced revenge thriller. Kim does not take the easy route, with Jung Soo’s scheme being far more complex than a simple taking down of the bad guys, and the film builds excitingly towards a tense and reasonably surprising conclusion. Things do get very violent, with a great deal of chain whippings and bullets to the head, though thanks to the patient build up, these scenes are rewarding and cathartic rather than gratuitous.
The film covers some quite challenging ground, exploring themes of morality and responsibility, both from a societal and individual perspective, as well as throwing in a few jabs at the hypocrisy that can hide behind religion. Even during its more action oriented last act, the film retains a mature, thoughtful approach to its potentially exploitative subject matter, with Jung Soo never really becoming a straightforward or glamorised vigilante figure. By not providing easy answers or pandering too much to cheap thrills, the film attains a hardboiled edge which makes it all the more compelling. The only real problem in this respect is the fact that Kim draws very closely from the same true life events that inspired another recent film, “The Case of the Itaewon Homicide”, so much so that several scenes feel almost identical. Whilst the case does indeed provide a fitting example of the shortcomings of the system, the film might have benefitted from focusing on something different, particularly for those familiar with what happened or with the earlier film.
Still, this doesn’t really detract from the film’s impact, and “Outlaw” makes for tough, hard hitting viewing. By turns shocking, devastating and thrilling, and with Gam Woo Sung on great form it manages to successfully walk the fine line between entertaining and making a potentially controversial statement.
Kim Cheol-han (director) / Kim Cheol-han (screenplay)
CAST: Kam Woo-seong, Jang Sin-yeong, Lee Seung-min, Choi Won-yeong, Yoon Ji-min, Tak Tu-In