December 18, 2011

Going by the Book: A Heist Movie in Theory

I've seen actor Jeong Jae-young in a handful of movies -- as a crafty merchant in the epic The Divine Weapon, as a determined vigilante in the jailbreak romp Righteous Ties, and as a fiercely woman-hating boyfriend in the underrated grrl-powered neo-noir No Blood, No Tears. He's always good but Ra Han-chee's Going by the Book is the pic that can be credited for making me a Jeong Jae-yeong fan.

I'm still puzzling over why I like him so much now. But I do. He's not sublime or emotionally raw or spellbindingly histrionic or drop-dead gorgeous. What he is is consistently watchable because Jeong is an actor who never relaxes internally. Even when his face is a blank (a look he's certainly perfected), his eyes aren't frozen with emptiness, they're stuck in a holding pattern that awaits more instructions from inside. Jeong's characters are thinkers, not philosophers or scientists so much as people with limited capacities pushing themselves to their limits. In my book, that he can convey overload without overacting can't be praised enough. And his talent is on full display here. As Do-man, a diabolically exacting cop who follows the letter of the law when called upon to play the part of a bank robber, Jeong is at the top of his game.

The staged crime that's cast his character as its lead player is meant to illustrate the police department's effectiveness in light of a rash of crimes plaguing the city. But since Do-man is as conscientious a criminal as he is a cop, this publicity stunt ends up highlighting how incompetent the police force actually is. Much to the dismay of the new police chief Lee Seung-woo (Son Byung-ho), Do-man (who's good behavior in the past has done nothing but get him demoted) outwits the boys in blue -- as well as a SWAT Team that wants to get in on the action -- at every step. Hostages are roughed up. Cops are killed. Pleas from the robber's mom go ignored.

Not that Do-man goes so far as to actually hurt someone. This is a simulation (and a comedy), remember, so when Do-man "rapes" one hostage, he executes a series of pushups; when he "shoots" a cameraman, he points his gun and shouts "Bang!" Part of the joy in watching Going by the Book, is getting to see a heist movie in which playacting adds another layer to the crime. Two stories unfold simultaneously: one is an elaborately conceived heist; the other is a terribly mismanaged bit of self-promotion. Both are enthralling tales because Jeong knows how to keep it real even when he's pretending.

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