Extreme Job (South Korea, 2019) [NYAFF Winter Showcase 2020]

An early scene in Extreme Job finds the young daughter of beleaguered narcotics cop Captain Go (Ryu Seung-ryong) expressing her love of fried chicken on the basis that it is food for common people. Indeed, this action-comedy concerning flailing police officers who unwittingly become fast food entrepreneurs has hit the sweet spot with local audiences as it is now South Korea’s second highest grossing film of all time. Awareness of this level of box office success builds expectations for an especially crispy piece of entertainment, but Extreme Job sadly proves to be rather undercooked.

It kicks off promisingly with Go’s squad somehow turning what should be a routine arrest into a public disgrace with their junkie quarry even providing a rundown of everything they are doing wrong. Consisting of eager rookie Jae-hoon (Gong Myung), surveillance technician Young-ho (Lee Dong-hwi), gambling crazy Ma (Jin Seon-kyu) and no-nonsense female member Jang (Lee Hanee), the squad’s arrest record is being surpassed by other units so a big bust is sorely needed. Setting their sights on drugs kingpin Mubae (Shin Ha-kyun), they stakeout his base of operations from the shabby chicken shop across the street. Realizing that the place is perfect for an undercover sting as it never attracts any customers, Go cleans out his pension fund to buy the business. What they don’t anticipate is being rushed off their feet when Ma’s delicious marinade turns the restaurant into an overnight sensation, thereby hindering their chances of doing any real police work.

Extreme Job plays like a cousin of Li Xinyun’s Lobster Cop (2018) with an almost identical set-up that swaps spicy crayfish for fried chicken. Those who have already seen the Chinese film may even feel like they are watching a swift, unofficial remake, at least until the mid-point. Both films find the cops posing as a family, being distracted from their duties by the demands of running a business and even considering whether it’s time to quit the force when profits skyrocket. The food element here is less tantalizing than in Lobster Cop, which made a spectacle of frying crayfish and flaunted a gaudy red lighting scheme as frenzied customers chowed down on humongous orders. To be fair, though, there is perhaps only so much that even the most gifted cinematographer can do with fried chicken. However, Extreme Job further develops the premise by smartly incorporating restaurant franchising into the plot with the appearance of an outside investor creating ethical conflict yet also presenting an opportunity for the squad to finally nail the elusive Mubae.

It’s briskly directed by Lee Byeong-heon who manages to balance action and comedy while keeping the plot moving in an unfussy manner. The cast are granted plenty of room to engage in banter which is mildly amusing, even if it fails to translate into belly laughs. Playing in broad strokes, they etch out likable personalities with the perpetually downcast Ryu capably shouldering the dramatic weight as the jaded senior cop who is chided by his wife for having never achieved his full professional potential. Although parallels between the service industry and law enforcement slyly critique the lack of appreciation for South Korea’s hard-working yet woefully underpaid police force, Extreme Job crucially lacks the satirical verve of Veteran (2015) or the rambunctious momentum of Midnight Runners (2017). Still, it just about gets by on its culturally malleable high concept, hence the planned US remake with Kevin Hart set to star.

It’s when straying from that high concept in the final act that the film becomes rather plain. While the climax of Lobster Cop playfully kept things in the kitchen, Extreme Job jettisons the chicken shop for an extended dockland brawl. A few inspired sight gags aside, it’s largely indistinguishable from the run of showdowns seen in South Korea’s commercial cinema over the past decade or so, leaving one to ponder the reasons for the film’s massive popularity rather than delighting in the payoff.

Extreme Job is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival Winter Showcase 2020 on February 14.