After it opened last January, this crime-comedy became South Korea’s second biggest box office success in history, prompting all sorts of speculation as to what exactly it represented to the country’s very large movie-adoring population. Though a few of the actors have wide appeal, no one had ever been considered responsible for a comparable hit, so it mostly came down to a happy combination of factors, including central plot points focused on food, a fairly open-ended approach to violent slapstick, and the normal January doldrums, when studios, even in Korea, I suppose, mostly release detritus.
Had I seen Extreme Job without knowing about its huge popularity, I might have pegged it as detritus. There’s a certain slapdash quality to the script that would seem to indicate an impatience with coming up with jokes—throw as much as you can against the wall and see what sticks. The opening scene makes a strong case for this theory. A preternaturally inept undercover narcotics police squad is carrying out a bust on a crew of junkie-dealers and plans an elaborate operation that involves at least one member pretending to be a window washer so that he can crash into the room and take the suspects by surprise. You can guess what happens, but the set-up is made super elaborate so that all five officers have a chance to show off their clumsiness. It gets a bit over-involved.
Predictably, the botched bust puts the team on notice with their supervisor, who suggests breaking them up, especially since a rival team of narcos has had such great success lately. The smug head of that team, for reasons that aren’t really clear—is he taking the piss or legitimately offering his rival a chance at redemption?—offers the head of the loser team, Chief Go (Ryu Seung-ryong), a tip about a drug kingpin recently released from prison. Go and his team quickly set up a stakeout near the organization’s headquarters. Naturally, more hijinks ensue to the point where their cover comes close to being blown, but when they notice that the crooks are regularly patronizing a local chicken restaurant they get jobs there as delivery people, hoping to be able to infiltrate the HQ. Then they go deeper when they learn that the owner of the restaurant wants to sell the business. They buy it.
It’s hardly a spoiler to mention that the restaurant, which was formerly a bust itself, turns into a thriving business under the auspices of the narco team. It’s a plot device that’s been used before, most recently by Woody Allen in Small Time Crooks, though director Lee Byoung-heon at least builds it up with some credible entrepreneurial savvy. At first, the squad barely acknowledges the set-up’s commercial side, but once customers start showing up they know they at least have to put on a front and one member, the bumbling Detective Ma (Jin Sun-kyu), happens to have a barbecue recipe from his hometown that he uses to make a special kind of marinated chicken, which instantly becomes a hit, attracting TV travel shows and Japanese tour groups.
Long story short, the crew’s management of the chicken store, which builds to a franchise brand and even synergy with a pizza chain, is much more interesting and funnier than the ongoing surveillance of the drug den, and Lee can’t always make the two storylines work together. A seemingly clever strand to use the franchise to lure the kingpin into some kind of distribution deal is just confusing, and doesn’t seem to lead anywhere, except to the eventual very violent showdown on the Seoul docks where the various police misfits finally get to show off their individual martial arts prowess. Suffice to say that Lee is less successful as a chef-de-action-cinema than the crew is as an accidental model of mercantile ingenuity.
In Korean. Now playing in Tokyo at Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).
Extreme Job home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2019 CJ ENM Corporation, Haegrimm Pictures Co., Ltd.