Thursday, January 05, 2017

Master: Ponzi Schemes Get Deadly

This will probably be the closest we ever get to seeing Lee Byung-hun playing Bernie Madoff. He is even sporty a wavy silver mane. To be fair, Jin Pyun-gil is also considerably more violent than the former Chuck Schumer donor. Jin is one ruthless cat, but his felonious house of cards could come crashing down when his systems guy turns state’s evidence, assuming the slippery rogue stays turned in Cho Ui-seok’s Master (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Jin is natural financial Elmer Gantry, who almost convinces himself with his empowerment spiel. Of course, Park Jang-gun and “Mama” Kim Eom-ma know better. Technically, he is Jin’s systems director and she is head of PR, but all three have been in on the con for the start. The stakes really increase when Jin’s One Network announces its bid to buy a major savings bank. With the central bank chairman in Jin’s pocket, only Capt. Kim Jae-myung, an elite financial crimes investigator stands in their way, but he has leverage over the likably sleazy Park.

Master is the sort of capery con film, where each double-cross leads to a triple or even quadruple. Park is a cad and Kim is a cold fish, but Jin is a seriously flamboyant villain (who knew Lee Byung-hun had it in him?), so it is just good clean fun to watch the two heart-throbs conspiring against the international superstar.

It is also a pleasant surprise to watch Gang Dong-on (The Priests, Vanishing Time) knock it out of the park as the awkwardly cerebral Capt. Kim, arguably sharing a kinship with Columbo and “L.” from the Death Note franchise. Lee Byung-hun clearly enjoys chewing the scenery, while Kim Woo-bin similarly has a blast playing up Park’s picaresque ethical flexibility. Yet, Jin Kyung frequently upstages everyone as “Mama” Kim, the glamorous grifter. Plus, Oh Dal-su does his thing as an oily public interest attorney secretly doing Jin Pyun-gil’s bidding.

Although Master is sort of part of the cynical zeitgeist manifested in recent Korean public corruption thrillers like Inside Men and A Violent Prosecutor, it does not have a similarly exaggerated sense of itself (with its two hour, twenty-minute running time being pretty standard by Korean standards). Regardless, it is devilishly entertaining to watch the all-star cast scheme and play each other. Cho keeps the shoes dropping at a brisk gallop, nicely showcasing his ridiculously photogenic ensemble. Highly recommended for fans of ziggy-zaggy crime thrillers, Master opens tomorrow (1/6) in New York, at the AMC Empire.