Buddy cop movies generally follow the same formula: take two detectives or cops who have every reason to not work well together, and force them into a situation where they must overcome their differences to solve a major case. Maybe one is a loose-cannon and one’s a stickler, or one of them is a Russian and the other’s American, or maybe one’s Whoopie Goldberg and one’s a T-Rex (if things are getting really desperate), but no matter what elements you plug into it, the formula’s been more or less consistent for decades. At this point, all that’s left to do is see what else there is to try. So it was really only a matter of time until someone made a buddy cop movie pairing police from North and South Korea. Is it a risky move, given the current political climate and North Korea’s dubious (to say the least) human rights record and national agenda? Undoubtedly, but South Korean filmmaker Sung-hoon kim did it anyway, and as a result we now have Confidential Assignment, one of the more fun and watchable buddy cop throwbacks of the last several decades.
The action begins when a North Korean general defects, taking with him a set of cutting-edge forgery plates that can turn out perfect replicas of American currency, and also killing a number of fellow officers along the way. The North Korean government is naturally desperate to retrieve the plates, and so they dispatch Im Cheol-ryung, one of their best men – and the husband of one of the slain officers – to Seoul in pursuit of the defector. Rather than go covertly, Cheol-ryung is put on a joint detail with South Korean detective Kang Jin-Tae. Obviously the two are under orders to keep an eye on each other, and this along with their clashing personalities makes them the classic odd pair.
From that setup, the film writes itself in a lot of ways. Cheol-ryung is dedicated, fearless, stern, and almost superhumanly athletic, while Jin-Tae is motormouthed, lazy, and only marginally streetwise. It’s the classic straight-man/funny guy pairing, and each actor plays their role to a tee. They play off each other in all the ways you’d expect, but still manage to stay entertaining despite the tiredness of the act.
That’s the whole film in a nutshell, if we’re being honest. Confidential Assignment is made almost exclusively of elements you’ve seen before, but they’re all executed so well that it doesn’t matter. There are martial arts beatdowns, a car chase or two, the odd gunfight, family drama, and political intrigue, all delivered in as straightforward and inoffensive a way as possible. However, that lack of anything new and fresh outside of the North/South Korean pairing never outweighs either the technical acumen of the filmmakers or the skill of the performers. Everything works exactly as intended; the action is exciting, the jokes land, and the motives and goals of the players remain clear. Confidential Assignment doesn’t try to innovate, something that might bring a less well-executed film crashing into the depths of mediocrity, but by doing everything as well as it can, the film works surprisingly well despite its rigid adherence to strict convention.
If Confidential Assignment has any problem, it’s that it might be twenty to thirty minutes too long. On the other hand, it’s never quite so long that it stops being good or overstays its welcome either. It might have been an even better film had it stuck to a lean, mean, 90-minute runtime, but the 125-minute length we get isn’t enough to bring it down in overall quality to any appreciable degree.
Once in a while a film comes along that reminds is that an adherence to formula need not be a death sentence, that a movie doesn’t strictly need to innovate or push boundaries in order to be worthy of attention. Confidential Assignment is one such example. Perhaps it helps that it’s working in a particular sub-genre – the buddy cop movie – that isn’t as popular these days, giving it a nostalgia or novelty appeal, but even with that to bolster its charm, the film gains a great deal in how efficiently and enthusiastically it’s assembled. Sometimes, all you really want is a fun, engaging action movie that hits all the bases with aplomb and leaves you hungry for a sequel; if that’s the case for you, and you have a chance to check this one out, you won’t be disappointed.
FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL • JULY 13 – AUGUST 2, 2017