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Korean director Jo Dong Oh returns with “Running Man”, his first outing since his big budget 2006 fantasy “The Restless”, a relative flop that was nevertheless noted for its stunning visuals. The film is a high concept action thriller, which as the title suggests is filled with chase scenes, actor Shin Ha Kyun (“The Front Line”) starring as the titular fellow, forced to flee after inadvertently getting caught up in a dangerous conspiracy. Also featuring rising television actor Lee Min Ho (popular in dramas “Rooftop Prince” and “Moon That Embraces the Sun”), the film fared better than his previous offering, opening at number one at the domestic box office.
Shin Ha Kyun plays Jong Woo, an ex-con with a long history of petty crimes and a habit of slipping the long hand of the law, now trying to go straight as a mechanic while looking after his rebellious teenage son Gi Hyuk (Lee Min Ho). Jong Woo also works as a driver on the side, and one night his life is plunged into chaos after he receives a hefty fee for driving a mysterious man around the city, only to find him dead in the backseat. Found at the scene of the crime and with blood on his shirt, Jong Woo is unsurprisingly the main suspect, and goes on the run, chased not only by the police, but by a variety of government agents, spies and corporate hitmen, all after data stored in the dead man’s phone. Meanwhile, Gi Hyuk tries to unravel the mystery, aided by a friendly cop (Kim Sang Ho, “Punch”) and an ambitious journalist looking for a scoop (actress Jo Eun Ji, “The Concubine”).
Interestingly, “Running Man” was the first Korean film to have been fully funded by a Hollywood studio, in this case 20th Century Fox, and it certainly has the look and feel of a slick commercial thriller, with great production values. The film is at its best when Jo Dong Oh sticks to the basic premise of Jong Woo on the lam, and it definitely lives up to its title, with Shin Ha Kyun spending most of the running time rushing around and trying to keep one step ahead of his many pursuers. What’s pleasing is the fact that while most films with similar themes tend to follow highly skilled parkour types, here Jong Woo is essentially an everyday guy rather than a fancy free runner, his ability to keep going based mainly on a dogged knack for survival. The many set pieces are a lot of fun to watch as a result, involving some great stunt work and lots of scrambling around and falling from high places, featuring some very painful looking bumps and knocks. Jo also throws in some decent fights, car chases and shoot-outs, and when “Running Man” is firing on all cylinders it rattles by at an exciting pace.
Unfortunately, the film isn’t quite so successful when it moves away from action, and as with “The Restless”, Jo shows a tendency to lose focus at times. The main issue here is that the conspiracy at the heart of the plot is fairly straightforward and isn’t terribly interesting, and without much in the way of twists or revelations, its scenes of investigation and subplots involving Kim Sang Ho’s bumbling cop and Jo Eun Ji’s journalist aren’t much more than a distraction. The father son drama similarly never really takes off, partly due to Gi Hyuk being a rather one-dimensional angsty, know-it-all teen figure, and while there’s thankfully not too much melodrama, some scenes towards the end do drag, especially given a lengthy running time of over two hours.
The film fares a little better when it comes to comedy, and a generally light-hearted feel helps, Jo wisely never seeming to be taking things too seriously. The same is true of leading man Shin Ha Kyun, and though he overacts wildly in places, this for the most part is funny rather than grating, and makes him a likeable fool of a protagonist. With only Lee Min Ho having to play a straighter and somewhat duller character, the rest of the cast are similarly prone to daft behaviour and hysterics, and this goes part way to distracting from some of the film’s less effective stretches.
Though ultimately nothing particularly special, “Running Man” is nevertheless worth a watch for Korean thriller fans, mainly thanks to some kinetic and chaotic action scenes. Jo Dong Oh still seems to be a director in need of a tighter rein on his work, and though there’s enough here to enjoy, it’s hard not to think that the film would have been better off with twenty minutes or so being trimmed.
Dong-oh Jo (director) / Dong-oh Jo (screenplay)
CAST: Eun-ji Jo