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'The Drug King' Movie Review

This South Korean effort into the crime genre is a mildly entertaining, if ineffective effort.

  • Released: December, 18 2018 (Netflix)
  • Length: 139 Minutes
  • Certificate: 15
  • Director: Woo Min-Ho
  • Starring: Song Kang-ho, Jo Jung-suk, Bae Doona, Kim Dae-myung, Kim So-jin, Lee Hee-joon, Jo Woo-jin and Yoon Je-moon

Released by Netflix and produced in South Korea, The Drug King aspires to be an engaging and entertaining criminal tale from a different perspective. Outside of some strong production design and capable performances, it rarely reaches the heights it strives for.

Set in 1970s South Korea, The Drug King tells the true story of Lee Doo Sam (Song Kang-ho), a small-time crook who eventually commanded a size-able narcotics trade between his homeland in Busan and Japan. We follow his rags-to-riches story as he conducts backhanded business practices, deals with obstacles on his path to the top and his efforts to avoid the prying eyes of the law led by Kim Jeong-ah (Bae Doona). It’s a fast-moving production that occasionally slows down to deliver a twist or two. The biggest issue I had with the film was its tonal inconsistency. The film opens with at the lowest level, a petty smuggler pulling occasional jobs and endlessly getting in trouble with rival criminals; there’s an element of wackiness here that shows through both the performances and all the crackpot schemes that make up the first act. Later, things grow more serious as the pressures of living a life of crime start to weigh heavily on the characters. The film can’t decide whether it wants to be a serious tale about power, wealth and corruption or a more light-hearted take on the crime genre. In the end, The Drug King ends up feeling like a mixture of films, most notably 1983’s Scarface. While it does offer some comedic moments in places, very little of the narrative is best-in-class.

Characters in The Drug King stick to what you’ve come to expect from a crime film; the scheming protagonist who eventually gets in over his head, the seductive Kim In-goo (played by Jo Jung-suk) who enjoys the glamourous life up to a point and the special prosecutor tasked with bringing the criminals to justice. The three main actors all do a good job capturing these archetypes though occasionally the script goes a bit too over-the-top, adding to the tonal issues mentioned previously. There’s also little in the way of backstories or personal development as well. Most of the cast in the film is fairly static, rarely getting to show off a range of emotions until the latter half of the film. The second half is certainly better than the first as greater pressures come down hard on Lee Doo Sam and his cohorts, but the production could have done a better job building the dramatic tension as things move along.

Much like other films in the genre, The Drug King anchors its presentation in the use of contrast; major differences in settings, costume designs and ritzy locations show Lee Doo Sam’s rise to power. The camera glides around the environments to show off the luxury and the occasional bursts of violence are also well shot; on the whole, it’s a very well helmed movie. The time period is true-to-form as well, with countless props layered throughout the sets to create a convincing backdrop. Interestingly, the soundtrack relies on operatic pieces just as much as period-piece music throughout the proceedings; it certainly works to heighten the extravagant side of Doo Sam’s riches though it doesn’t work as well at drawing out a response from the audience. The technical aspects do their part well enough, but they are often at odds with the random nature of the story.

The Drug King sticks out as a standard-issue crime drama which borrows a fair bit from other entries in the genre. It offers entertainment in bursts, but the tonal inconsistency and somewhat cartoonish opening act hold it back from making an impression.

Rating: 3/5 Stars (Fair)

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