A Hard Day, the new cop thriller from South Korean director Kim Seong-hoon, doesn't waste any time with introductions. In the film's opening moments, Detective Ko Geon-soo (Lee Sun-kyun) narrowly avoids hitting a dog with his car and, distracted by his near miss, runs over a pedestrian. And with that fatal encounter, the movie is off and running like a racehorse at the Preakness. Seong-hoon's not concerned with Hollywood pleasantries – he tosses us headlong into the action and hopes we can keep up.
The ensuing tale is sordid and sleazy, where the line between cop and villain is as porous as a whiffle ball. Detective Ko, realizing that he's killed the pedestrian, tosses the body into his trunk and heads to the morgue, to pay his respects to his recently deceased mother. He then conveniently hides the pedestrian's body in his mother's coffin and seals the lid, the better to keep his crime a secret. Later, his police unit – which has been charged with corruption and taking bribes, naturally – is sent to investigate the death of a violent criminal, Lee, who turns out to be the same man that Ko struck with his car. This leads to an encounter with another dirty cop, the intimidating Lieutenant Park (Jo Jin-woong), who knows of Ko's secret and blackmails him into recovering Lee's body in order to retrieve a hidden fortune. At one point, when Ko's sister asks him to strong-arm her neighbors out of their apartment, Ko answers incredulously, "Cops aren't gangsters." Hollow words, indeed.
A Hard Day
Lee Sun-kyun, Jo Jin-woong, Man-shik Jeong
17 July 2015
Josh's Grade: B+
What's surprising about all of this nasty business, which reads like a companion piece to the black-as-tar Bad Lieutenant (1992), is how funny it often is. Seong-hoon wisely imbues the relentless negativity with a sense of self-aware absurdity, injecting regular doses of humor into a narrative that would otherwise be incessantly bleak. The sequence at the funeral home, for instance, in which an increasingly frantic Ko must shove a stranger's body into his mom's casket before he is discovered by security, has the pounding intensity of high-octane set piece but never forgets that what's occurring is patently ridiculous (the cell phone in Lee's pocket, ringing audibly through the sealed coffin, becomes a recurring joke). In a deliberate effort to lampoon the tropes of masculinity in law enforcement, most of the jokes come at the expense of Ko and his compatriots; no one is as clever or as macho as they think they are.
Seong-hoon also demonstrates a mastery of surprise and suspense, toggling between the two with mischievous panache. Hitchcock explained that the difference between the two is, for suspense, you show a bomb before it detonates; for surprise, you show it explode. A Hard Day employs the two in equal measure, making it both intense and unpredictable: sometimes a ticking clock keeps the action taut with anticipation, and other times something calamitous happens with no warning at all. And Seong-hoon, ever the prankster, clearly takes pleasure in fusing and subverting these conventions: a car loaded with a hidden time bomb disappears from view, only to slowly reappear so the driver can suggest a diner nearby. It's moments like these when you can practically see Seong-hoon giggling as he manipulates the marionette strings of our expectations.
As is too often the case with these kinds of films, everything devolves into a frenzy of unsparing violence, abandoning the playfulness that made the affair so much fun in the first place. The final showdown between Ko and his duplicitous nemesis is jarringly severe and, frankly, a chore to watch. A Hard Day, led by Sun-kyun's self-deprecating histrionics, had made every effort to mock the idea of police machismo; it's disappointing that it should revert so abruptly to those very clichés. But, barring its bone-crunching conclusion, A Hard Day revels in its subversion of form. It's not often that you find an exciting cop action flick that's so eager to wink at itself.