To give credit where credit is due, first-time writer/director Dong-hun Choi certainly knows where he’s going and how to get there with his caper film “The Big Swindle”. Oh sure, the movie is highly derivative in nature, and its caper is just a sideshow compared to the double-crosses and triple-crosses going on around it. And of course you certainly wish the film had invested more originality in the story. But the real question is: was it fun getting to the movie’s Big Reveal?
“The Big Swindle” opens in the aftermath of a failed bank job, with slick conman Chang-hyuk (Shin-yang Park) going over a bridge in a car, plummeting to his fiery death in front of pursuing cops. The bank job, we learn, involved a five-man crew, and with Choi’s death, that leaves Olmae (Mun-shik Lee) in the hospital with a broken leg and three other participants missing. One of the missing is Master Kim (Yun-shik Baek), the semi-retired distinguished conman who Choi convinced to assemble the team in the first place. The other two are Chaebi (Won-sang Park), who has a bit of a violent streak (mostly directed at women), and a slightly dense but ace counterfeiter.
Taking its cue mainly from “The Usual Suspects”, “Swindle” begins to uncover its intricate plot through the recollections of various characters. At the center of it all is a persistent police Captain who has been after Master Kim for some time, and the thought of Kim getting away yet again drives the man nuts. Also complicating matters is Choi’s brother, Chang-ho, a shy, introverted novelist who runs a bookstore. While at the police station answering questions, Chang-ho comes into contact with the pretty In-kyung (Jung-ah Yum), Master Kim’s mistress, who takes an immediate liking to Chang-ho. Or to be more precise, to Chang-ho’s checking account.
The movie is a bit complicated to go into any great detail, but suffice it to say that the script definitely takes its time. The measured pace works when the answers the audience seeks in order to complete the puzzle is exposed little by little, but not so much when the film seems to take forever to get to its botched bank job. Nevertheless, the narrative unfolds in such a straightforward manner that, if you’ve been paying attention, you should be able to guess the film’s Big Reveal at around the hour mark. And really, the fact that a main character dies right at the very beginning, and re-appears in flashbacks, would seem to give away the movie’s Big Reveal. (Hint hint)
As a caper film, “The Big Swindle” is strangely lacking in the whole caper department. Chang-hyuk’s plan to rob a large bank is mostly glossed over, with the extraneous details barely discussed among the thieves, even though each one seems to have a unique talent that makes them right for the job at hand. The actual bank robbery itself barely lasts more than 5 minutes, with the rest of the film dedicated to the thieves, the cops, and an exasperated Master Kim, trying to figure out who double-crossed whom.
The acting in “Swindle” is fine across the board, with the lone stand out being Yun-shik Baek, whose master swindler suddenly realizes that he’s been conned with such a high degree of skill that he starts walking around with a double-gauge shotgun. Interestingly enough, Shin-yang Park and Jung-ah Yum both migrated to “Swindler” from two somber movies (“The Uninvited” and “H” respectively), and it’s curious to note the drastic shift in their acting style. It makes you wonder if it’s the script, the director, or if it’s an institutional thing, that requires lead actors in serious thrillers to act with such somber disposition as to drain all life from the screen.
“The Big Swindle” benefits most from a coherent script that never takes any great leaps in logic that I could detect. The result is a film that looks and feels sure of itself, mostly because the man behind the camera seems to know exactly how he wants to get to the finish line. Best of all, there are more than enough clues so that a thinking audience can outguess the script. Although the film holds out on a series of final double-crosses toward the end, much of the film’s intricate plot should really be evident by the hour mark.
When all is said and done, you could do a lot worst than “The Big Swindle”. It’s no breakthrough film by any stretch, and if anything it probably borrows much too liberally from other, better cinematic sources. Quentin Tarantino’s “Reservoir Dogs” (without the gleeful bloodletting) and Bryan Singer’s “The Usual Suspects” (including a very Keyser Soze-esque Big Reveal Moment) comes to mind. Then again, I suppose there is something to be said about competence, of which “The Big Swindle” can claim at least that much.
Dong-hun Choi (director) / Dong-hun Choi (screenplay)
CAST: Shin-yang Park …. Choi Chang-hyuk
Jung-ah Yum …. Seo In-kyung
Yun-shik Baek …. Master Kim
Mun-shik Lee …. Big Mouth (Olmae)
Won-sang Park …. Swallow (Chaebi)