Jo Pil-ho (Sun Kyun-lee) is the worst dirty cop you’ve ever seen. You’d think leading a double life would teach him to be careful, but he sees no harm in meeting his shady underworld contacts in broad daylight, telling brazen lies to his boss and winding up right in the middle of a crime scene. It’s no wonder the vultures over at Internal Affairs agents are circling him.
One of Jo’s dodgy contacts needs money so he sets up an ambitious heist on a police warehouse. Complications ensue, the plan goes south and Jo finds himself on a hospital bed and dragged into a conspiracy involving the sinister Taesung Group. It turns out that the chairman of the company was having his own troubles with the law and ordered the destruction of a huge stash of legal evidence. They thought the plan went off without a hitch, but someone recorded a secret video implicating them in the crime. When Jo comes into possession of that video, Taesung send a ruthless enforcer to hunt him down. The video was also sent to Mina (Jeon So-Nee), a feisty teen that Jo reluctantly teams up with. They need to get their evidence into the hands of the authorities but there aren’t many people a dirty cop can trust.
What exactly the Taesung Group does is never actually established – they’re the “Number 1 Corporation in Korea”, apparently – but it hardly matters. What matters is what they represent: the heartless one-percenters who flaunt their nauseating wealth without a shred of guilt. This is encapsulated by the company’s chairman who laughs about being rich enough to dodge the military draft and monologues on the cheapness of ordinary lives. Those looking for the moral complexity of most dirty cop flicks will be disappointed; the conflict here is more “good versus evil” than a superhero film.
Jo is an odd representative for the forces of good; cynical, violent and unapologetically out for himself. The burden falls on Kyun-lee to create an antihero we can root for. He injects the character with pathos and a charming world-weariness, doing strong work in an otherwise underwritten role. The dialogue is clunky and slides into silliness more than a few times (“I’m so dead”, someone says, moments before they die) but the script has a good sense of humour which makes the heavy-handed satire go down a bit easier.
When it comes to Korean crime films, the bar has been set almost unfairly high by the likes of Oldboy, A Bittersweet Life and Memories of Murder. Jo Pil-Ho: The Dawning Rage does not earn its place among them but it’s a serviceable thriller by its own right.
P.S.: No, that subtitle doesn’t make any more sense by the end of the film.