Wednesday, May 22, 2024

Chief Detective 1958, on Hulu

Lee Je-hoon’s unit is like the “Untouchables” of post-Korean War Seoul. Unfortunately, the rest of the Jongnam station is very touchable. Awkwardly, the station captain is probably the most corrupt of the whole crooked Jongnam lot. To fight crime and serve the common good, Lee and his teammates must frequently work around their colleagues and superiors in creator Park Jae-beom’s Chief Detective 1958, which starts streaming today on Hulu.

Eventually, Lee becomes the revered central character in the vintage early 1970s K-drama
Chief Inspector, to which Chief Detective 1958 serves as a prequel. However, when the new standalone series opens, Lee is new in town, having just transferred from Hwangchun, where he set the national record for arresting cow thieves. He figures he should keep arresting criminals in Seoul, but the blatantly corrupt Choi Dal-sik keeps releasing them and forcing him to apologize.

Yu Dae-cheon, the honest leader of Investigative Unit #1, counsels patience, but Lee is spoiling for a fight. He finds a natural ally in Kim Sang-sun, the hard-charging
Lethal Weapon-like detective nicknamed “Mad Dog” because of his habit of biting suspects. They soon recruit Jo Gyeong-hwan, a burly laborer, who is tired of seeing average folk getting pushed around. They also poach the college-educated Seo Ho-jeong from Unit #2, because Lee understands they can use someone like Charles Martin Smith’s forensic accountant in de Palma’s The Untouchables.

Unit #1 will definitely fight corruption in the Jongnam station over the course of the series, but they also work separate, discrete cases each episode. Out of the first four episodes, their plan to catch a band of armed bank robbers in episode three, “Highwaymen,” is the best written and directed. We have all seen thousands of bank heists on TV, but Park and writer Kim Young-shim come up with some wild new wrinkles.

The case of infants murdered by an evil orphanage in episode four, “Yellow Turtle,” is so grim, it out SVUs
Law & Order SVU. To its credit, it also challenges attitudes towards disability. Unfortunately, many of the American servicemen depicted in episode two, “The Headstrong Unit of Jongnam,” are just villainous caricatures. No matter how virulent racist attitudes were in the 1950s, there is no way a white 2nd Lieutenant would dare strike a Korean American First Lieutenant and expect to get away with it. The American military has had a few issues in the past, but chain of command is absolutely sacrosanct.

Regardless, Lee Dong-hwi is terrific combining the most extreme aspects of “Dirty Harry” Callahan and Martin Riggs, as “Mad Dog” Kim. Lee Je-hoon also brings some off-kilter unpredictability to Lee (the future Chief Inspector), but he cannot match Mad Dog’s grit and intensity, while Choi Deok-moon is appropriately jaded as Yu. Weirdly, all the corrupt cops really add a lot of color and texture to the series, most definitely starting with Oh Yong as the cringingly venal Chief Choi.

The post-war setting adds to the intrigue, but the periodic use of comedic sound effects is a distracting mistake. The procedural business is professionally executed, but as of episode four, some featured characters still lack substantial development. No prior knowledge of
Chief Inspector is required, but fans will be reassured to see original star Choi Bool-am appear as the modern-day Lee, remembering the events of 1958 during a visit to the fateful Jongnam station. It is a sturdy cop show, but Shadow Detective is considerably better. Recommended for regular policier viewers looking for something different, but not too different, Chief Detective 1958 starts streaming today (5/22) on Hulu.