South Korean crime drama “The Drug King” bored me without much interest or excitement. While there is nothing particularly new or fresh here in terms of story, characters, and other genre aspects, the movie does not even have enough distinctive style or substance to engage its audiences, and I found myself frequently checking my watch while watching it trudging from one predictable plot point to another during its plodding 139-minute running time. I was a bit tired when I walked into the screening room yesterday evening, but I got more tired when the movie was over, and I become desperate to watch anything marginally better than this sluggish boredom (Fortunately, that soon happened, though I was not exactly satisfied).
The story of the movie is about the rise and fall of Lee Doo-sam (Song Kang-ho), who is initially just a small-time criminal working for a local contraband trader in Busan, 1972. As operating along with his cousin Doo-hwan (Kim Dae-myung) between South Korea and Japan, Doo-sam comes to realize that there is a growing underworld market for methamphetamine in Japan, and then he gets a pretty good idea. It is possible to produce methamphetamine in Busan and then smuggle it into Japan via his connections with Japanese gangs, and he is certainly tempted by this big criminal business opportunity.
Although there comes a setback as he happens to be arrested and then sent to a prison, Doo-sam does not give up his plan at all. Through some bribery, he manages to get released earlier, and then he soon embarks on setting up his own criminal organization as recruiting Doo-hwan and other criminal figures including Professor Beak (Kim Hong-fa), an old chemist who knows about producing methamphetamine as well as the protagonist of TV series “Breaking Bad”. Once the materials for methamphetamine production are smuggled from Taiwan, Professor Baek begins to work in his secret laboratory hidden inside a pigpen, and Doo-sam is excited to see Professor Baek’s high quality product.
Once his contraband connection between Japan and South Korea is established, Doo-sam comes to get a lot more money than expected. Thanks to his increasing criminal wealth, he can present himself as a seemingly respectable local business figure on the surface, and his family members including his wife Sook-kyung (Kim So-jin) are happy to receive the money and many other expensive things provided by him while not questioning anything.
In the meantime, somebody begins to watch on Doo-sam as noticing his growing criminal influence. He is a young prosecutor named Kim In-goo (Jo Jung-suk), and, unlike many others who have been bribed by Doo-sam, he is not someone who will not easily bend in front of money, and Doo-sam eventually comes to have no choice but to go to Seoul for staying low for a while.
However, thanks to lots of money in his possession, Doo-Sam gets another chance of success in Seoul, and then he comes to encounter Kim Jeong-ah (Bae Doona), a sassy lobbyist who can connect him with a bunch of prominent figures in the South Korean government. As a result, Doo-sam’s social/criminal status rises far higher than before, and he certainly feels like being at the top of the world.
Not so surprisingly, there subsequently comes a narrative point where Doo-Sam faces the consequence of his criminal actions, but the movie does not generate much dramatic impact mainly due to its shallow storytelling and thin characterization. While Doo-sam is not a very engaging character, the depiction of his rising criminal career in the film is too clichéd and scattershot to hold our attention, and we are only served with several tepid moments of gruesome violence besides redundant nightclub scenes which frequently feature naked female body parts for, well, reflecting Doo-sam and other male character’s vulgar desire.
In addition, the movie also tries to draw a parallel between Doo-sam’s drama and President Park Chung-hee’s dictatorship during the 1970s, but nothing much sticks on the screen on the whole. Around the finale, we get a cheap imitation of that climactic moment of “Scarface” (1983), and then we are only left with its hollow ending which does not signify much.
The performers in the movie try to support their film as much as they can, but, alas, they do not have many things to do from the beginning. Song Gang-ho has always been a reliable and charismatic actor during last 20 years, and he has a few good moments such as a disturbing scene where his character tastes his product for the first time as trying to get away from a very violent moment he has just experienced, but his performance here in this film lacks spirit and personality which I usually saw from his previous performances. As a matter of fact, this is the least interesting work in his career, and that is why I felt more disappointed with the film.
In case of other performers surrounding Song, they are criminally under-utilized on the whole. While Bae Doona, who previously appeared along with Song in Bong Joon-ho’s “The Host” (2006) and Jo Jung-suk, who previously appeared along with Song in “The Face Reader” (2013), are regrettably wasted in their thankless roles, Kim Dae-myung, Lee Hee-joon, Yoon Je-moon Jo woo-jin, and Kim So-jin are stuck with their flat supporting characters, and Kim Hong-fa manages to leave some impression during his brief appearance.
“The Drug King” is written and directed by Woo Min-ho, who previously made “Inside Men” (2015). While I did not like that film a lot, I was entertained to some degrees thanks to its competent direction and several good performances, so I recommend you to watch that film or “Nameless Gangster: Rules of the Time” (2012) instead, which was a lot more biting and electrifying than “The Drug King” as skillfully handling its similar subjects. Compared to these two films, “The Drug King” is a trite, mediocre piece of work, and I sincerely urge you to stay away from it.