Jong-Woo (played by Shin Ha-kyun) is a poor, beleagured taxi driver with a bad attitude, understandable given the kind of clients he has to deal with. So when one night, a polite, well-dressed man offers an outrageous sum of money to rent the taxi for an extended period, Jong Woo doesn't ask any questions, though he does make rather cheerful and inappropriate conversation with his uninterested charge. It's difficult to blame Jong-Woo for this, given that it takes him some time to realize that he is not the protagonist of a low-brow comedy, but of an action-packed thriller.
"Running Man"'s greatest strength is that Shin Ha-kyun plays Jong-Woo with this great sort of incompetent humility. Jong-Woo is not an action movie protagonist. When his various escapes cause egregious property damage, this is less about giving the audience what they want so much as it is establishing that Jong-Woo is very, very bad at being quiet or subtle about anything. His extremely clumsy reactions are quite funny, and much of the movie is reminiscent the Keystone Kops only with a bigger budget and more clever camera work.
Unfortunately, this is not the whole movie. Midway through, Jong-Woo undergoes a very melodramatic character shift and the story as a whole takes a turn for the more serious. Up until this point, the villain is at least as much Jong-Woo's own character flaws as it is the international spy conspiracy he's up against. But afterwards, it's just too difficult to sympathize with him. He still makes the same stupid mistakes, but whereas before this was funny, now the movie wants us to accept him as a stock action movie hero.
The problem with this conceit is that it just begs the questions- "why is he even bothering with all this?" I can't recognize this Jong-Woo as being the same charming money-grubbing malcontent he was at the beginning of the movie. He ends up taking everything really personally, even though he was only ever a bystander in the grander plot. While at the beginning Jong-Woo is mainly looking out for himself and his son, by the end both of them are being put into mortal danger for no particularly convincing reason.
The rest of the cast suffers from the same problems. They're good comedians, and when that's what the script calls for, they succeed. But when they start making serious decisions, it's difficult to understand why. They're all just working stiffs with relatively pragmatic motivations who have little reason to care about an international spy conspiracy. With them, too, I just kept wondering why they didn't care about their own self-preservation.
Seon-Yeong (played by Jo Eun-ji) gets special marks for playing a woman who really is crazy enough to want to get embroiled in the bigger plot just because that's how nuts she is. Jo Eun-ji has an especially great scene where she's playing a crazy person pretending to be an even crazier person for reasons even her allies think are deranged. But on the flip side, we have Jong-Woo's son, Gi-Hyeok (played by Lee Tae-ri), who only does serious scenes, and consequently is fairly dull.
Overall, I can't honestly recommend "Running Man". The good parts are fairly equally cancelled out by the bad, and the overall movie is a disappointment because it really just makes me wish that the consistently comedic theme had been maintained. As long as Jong-Woo's running, we've got a good movie. But once he starts acting on his own, everything that was so special about the first part just sort of evaporates away.
Review by William Schwartz
Staff writer. Has been writing articles for HanCinema since 2012, having lived in South Korea since 2011. Started out in Gyeongju, then to Daegu, then to Ansan, then to Yeongju, then to Seoul, lived on the road for HanCinema's travel diaries series in the summer of 2016, and is currently settled in Anyang. Has good tips for utilizing South Korea's public bus system. William Schwartz can be contacted via firstname.lastname@example.org.
"[HanCinema's Film Review] "Running Man""
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