Despite a very graphic suicide (a bullet through the head) popping up early in “Public Enemy,” the rest of the film takes a dramatic shift toward comedy. Not long after the suicide, a cab driver is bludgeon to death by the film’s villain, Cho (Seong-jae Lee), who later commits a double murder in a particularly violent fashion. And yet, “Public Enemy” is more comedy than it is anything else. (I know it’s hard to believe, but it’s true.)
“Public Enemy” stars Kyung-gu Sol (from the wonderful “Peppermint Candy”) as Kang, a corrupt cop who, as the film opens, has just robbed drugs from some gangsters with intentions to sell it. When Internal Affairs begins investigating him, Kang tries to dump the drug, only to find it impossible. Frustrated, the burned out cop returns to work and ends up on the trail of Cho, an ambitious fund manager who has just slaughtered his parents for their money. Cho and Kang bumps into each other in the aftermath of the murder, and from that moment on the two are at odds as Kang pursues Cho using all avenues at his disposal — and even some that aren’t.
“Public Enemy” manages to balance the comedy and drama very well, something I didn’t think was possible. Despite a couple of very bloody and violent murders, the movie never becomes “Seven”-ish — meaning it never becomes depressingly morbid and obsessed with atmosphere. It’s hard to explain, but I was able to laugh riotously at the film’s comedy mere moments after a brutal murder took place, something I usually feel awkward about doing. Somehow writer/director Woo-Suk Kang manage to draw this out of me, much to my chagrin.
As the disheveled, slightly off-kilter Detective, Kyung-gu Sol is nevertheless very endearing. Despite his lack of everything, we can feel and see the honest cop inside him trying to get out. He’s not the best detective in the world, and his superiors are never hesitant to inform him of this fact. But despite all that, Kang has something that makes him a great detective: he’s instinctive and tenacious, and he easily becomes Cho’s worst nightmare, much to Cho’s surprise.
As the preppie/yuppie killer, Seong-jae Lee is the perfect counterbalance to Sol’s Kang. Cho is a man who always gets his way and he isn’t the least bit hesitant about killing a man for a perceived insult. So when this out-of-control Detective (who is clearly Cho’s lesser in intelligence, charm, and looks) confronts this hot-tempered, murderous yuppie, Cho is completely caught off guard. How do you shake a dog that won’t be shaken? Kang has a hold on Cho’s leg and he isn’t letting go, and the smarter man this dumbfounded.
How Kang eventually captures Cho is irrelevant (but think “Colombo” for clues), because these two men are destined to end things in a primitive and bloody manner. In something of a surprise, Kang and Cho don’t even meet each other until almost the halfway mark, when Cho murders his parents one rainy night. Their encounter is brutal and violent, setting up the next hour for the two men to butt heads, part, and butt heads some more. And it’s all spectacularly done, even if some of the plot points are predictable. (The loose-cannon-cop versus his by-the-book-superior scenes has been done to death, and “Public Enemy” unfortunately has to take a stab at it as well.)
There is something very human about “Public Enemy” that doesn’t seem obvious at first glance. It’s Kang’s openness about his corruption, his instincts to save people and be a “protector of the people” that makes him so endearing despite all of his vices (and he has many). In the end, the film works because it’s found such great balance in everything it does.
Let me also say that “Public Enemy” is one of the funniest movies I’ve seen to come out of South Korea. I hope this is a new direction for that industry, because my experiences with previous South Korean “comedies” have been rather lackluster and disappointing. (“Surprise” comes to mind.) As a final aside, “Public Enemy” is also what the Robert De Niro movie “Showtime” tried to be, but failed.
Woo-Suk Kang (director) / Woo-Suk Kang (screenplay)
CAST: Kyung-gu Sol …. Kang Cheol-gu
Seong-jae Lee …. Cho Gyo-hwan
Shin-il Kang …. Eom Ban-jeong