Thursday, December 12, 2013

Friend 2: The Legacy—Back in the Family Business

Gangsters have a strong sense of history, probably because the past is constantly coming to bite them.  Lee Joon-seok is a case in point.  He will have all sorts of unfinished business on his hands after serving his seventeen year prison sentence in Kwak Kyung-taek’s Friend 2: the Legacy (trailer here), which opens tomorrow in New York.

Lee is doing time for ordering the hit on a rival gang leader, who was once his childhood best friend.  The turncoat was sort of asking for it, but it still bothers Lee from time to time.  Shortly before his release, Lee is visited by a casual social acquaintance from his youth. Her son Choi Seong-hoon is a fellow prisoner, who has been marked for death after crossing Lee’s outfit.  Much to his surprise, Lee extends his protection to the young thug, eventually taking him on as a protégé when they are both released.

They will be busy.  Lee finds the syndicate his father first organized has been largely hijacked by Eun-gi, a cold-blooded boardroom gangster who exploited the vacuum left by Lee’s incarceration and the failing health of their Chairman.  Obviously, Lee is not about to let this stand, even when a fairly obvious revelation threatens to undermine his relationship with the volatile Choi.

Friend 2 probably has four or five flashbacks too many, periodically revisiting not just Lee and Choi’s tumultuous backstories, but also giving viewers the highlights of the gang’s formative days under Lee’s enterprising father.  The latter are almost superfluously tangential, but they are executed with a good deal of style and provide a lot of gangster genre goodies, so its worth going along with them, even if the confuse the narrative thread.

Regardless, Yoo Oh-seong is unquestionably Friend 2’s steely MVP.  He is all hardnosed business as Lee, yet he still suggests hints of that troubled conscious buried somewhere deep within him. Kim Woo-bin is certainly convincingly erratic as Choi.  Frankly, Friend 2 is not a great showcase for women’s roles, but the always reliable Jang Yeong-nam works wonders as Choi’s still attractive and resilient mother.

The gangster themes of family, loyalty, and betrayal are pretty standard stuff by now, but Friend 2’s executes them with energy and conviction.  The hits and brawls are always quite cinematic and the period scenes are nicely crafted.  Propelled by Yoo’s serious-as-a-heart attack performance, Friend 2 is a solidly entertaining (if not exactly game-changing) crime epic, recommended for those who appreciate the specific genre and Korean cinema in general.  It opens tomorrow (12/13) in New York at the AMC Empire.