Ironically, new South Korean action movie “Running Man” does not run that much. It instead hobbles a lot while letting itself being saddled with many unnecessary story elements which could have been discarded without any problem, and I kept losing my patience during its running time. Some good action movies can get away with that kind of problem, but this movie is not quick or smart enough to do it, and what we have here is a bland action flick unsuccessfully mixed with comedy and melodrama.
Its premise is a familiar thriller set-up. Cha Jong-woo(Sin Ha-gyoon) is an ex-con who now works at a car repair shop during day and also works as a driver for drunken customers during night. On one evening, he happens to come across a mysterious customer offering lots of money for his immediate driving service, and he gleefully accepts this offer, but it turns out to be a pretty unwise choice. Not long after that, he finds his customer murdered in the car, and he soon becomes a wanted man because of the crime he didn’t commit.
He finds himself being pursued by many men who want to catch him. First, there are the cops who quickly conclude that Jong-woo is the man they should arrest, and there is a mysterious killer who wants something Jong-woo unwittingly has in his possession. It turns out that this case is associated with some important government project, so we also have a bunch of black suit agents from National Intelligence Service along with two shady guys who are probably international information brokers.
This sounds indeed typical, but this is a nice starting point for any action thriller, and the movie surely has potentials inside its hero. Jong-woo is not a clever guy at all who can outwit the guys chasing after him, but he is a desperate rat who somehow manages to run one or two steps ahead of them. He usually runs or drives fast without much thought, but he usually finds the ways to get out of danger even when the situation is pretty hopeless, and it is exciting at times to watch him evading the police and the government agents through his quick improvisations. Seriously, I do not think an ordinary guy like Jong-woo can successively run that fast, jump that fast, and ride a cart and a bicycle that fast without getting any serious injuries during one busy action sequence at the crowded stadium, but, considering that he was very good at running away from the Police during the salad days of his criminal career, maybe I should accept that impossible aspect of his actions in the movie.
Unfortunately, while they are well-made, the action sequences in the movie are mostly too short for solidifying their presence in the story, and the remaining excitement in them is considerably hampered by the bad screenplay. With silly laughs and tearful family melodrama, the clumsy screenplay by the director Cho Dong-oh irritatingly keeps trying to jerk laughs and emotions from us whenever the story is not on action mode, and that cheap tactic hurts the momentum a lot throughout the movie; rather than lubricating its plot, it clogs up the plot, and the movie frequently feels tedious as a result.
The most deleterious part in the screenplay is the problematic relationship between Jong-woo and his rebellious teenager son Gi-hyeok(Lee Min-ho). The depiction of this relationship is unconvincing to say the least, and it continues to disrupt the flow of the story as Gi-hyeok also gets involved with his father’s trouble. Because of some anger issue associated with his dad and his absent mother, Gi-heyok does not give a damn about what will happen to his father, but, what do you know, he quickly comes to change his mind later while he still looks and sounds as stiff and hostile as before.
With a sympathetic cop(played by amiable Kim Sang-ho) and an eager female reporter(played by lively Jo Eun-ji) who senses something suspicious about the murder case, Gi-hyeok searches for anything to help Jong-woo while trying to find the motive behind the murder, but I must say he is actually not as clever as the movie wants us to believe. The things he notices or discovers are so simple that it is rather amazing that the cops did not notice them from the start, and we already have a pretty good idea about what is really going on even before he draws a complex diagram for his investigation on the window. As a matter of fact, when he luckily finds a very important evidence to prove his father’s innocence, he does not go to the character he trusts most. He goes instead to the other character he should not trust easily and then hands the evidence to that character because, well, there is still more running time left in the movie.
The movie eventually arrives at the climactic moment of showdown between Jong-woo and bad guys and good guys, but it lacks tension due to its deficient build-up process coming before it, and it is handled and resolved in a way so predictable that I could easily imagined what would happen next – and what kind of an epilogue scene would follow for providing a feel-good moment for the audiences.
Most of the actors in the movie trudge along with the plot while doing whatever they can do with their bland characters. Sin Ha-gyoon gives a competent physical performance as a runaway hero, but I have seen him and his co-performers giving better performances in other movies, and I was saddened by their talents being wasted on the screen. I am not familiar with young actor Lee Min-ho, but I could see that his embarrassingly wooden performance is not entirely his fault; his character is such an eyesore from the beginning that no talented actor can possibly give a good performance no matter how much he tries.
“Running Man” reminds me of another unsuccessful South Korean action film “Quick”(2011), which I also did not like because of its lousy storytelling filled with cheap laughs, manipulative melodrama, and the caricatures I didn’t care about. I understand well that comedy and melodrama are something that comes with the territory in case of many commercial South Korean movies, but that movie was still not good at all, and the same thing can be said about “Running Man”. Its characters are relatively less annoying compared to those despicable characters in that movie, and I sort of liked its actions scenes, but, alas, I began checking my watch even before its first hour went by. That’s not a good sign, you know.