Gritty and intense, Inside Men mixes the formulas of the buddy cop film and the revenge drama successfully with incisive dissection of the collusions between politicians, conglomerates, and the media in South Korea. While sometimes overlong, Inside Men is solidly entertaining and complete with intrigue, plot twists, and occasional bursts of graphic violence. However, its abbreviated depictions of important character relations prevent the film from being as emotionally impactful as it could be.
The film begins with Ahn Sang-goo (Lee Byung-hun), a former gangster, holding a press conference that reveals a slush fund that had been set up by Mirae Motors to bankroll electoral campaigns of congressman Jang Pil-woo (Lee Kyoung-young). For Ahn, this revelation is fuelled by his personal vendetta. Two years ago, when he intercepted files on the slush fund and mistakenly handed them to Lee Gang-hee (Baek Yoon-sik), editor-of chief of the Kukmin Daily, Lee betrayed him and Ahn’s right hand was sawed off as a warning.
Two years later, the seedy triumvirate made up by Lee, Jang, and Oh Hyun-soo (Kim Hong-fa), president of Mirae Motores, has reached new heights as Jang is poised to become president. Ahn secretly plots to bring them down, but when his plans go south, he is coerced into forming an unlikely alliance with district attorney Woo Jang-hoon (Cho Seung-woo). Woo convinces Ahn that the only way to bring the unholy trinity of Lee, Jang, and Oh down is for Ahn to go public with his information. However, by doing so, Ahn would be admitting to his past criminal activities and he would have to go to jail himself. Reluctantly, Ahn agrees.
While the news of the slush fund initially spreads like wildfire, Lee, using his media savviness, succeeds in manipulating public opinion by fabricating stories of Ahn’s gangster past. As Ahn’s testimony becomes disproved and ignored, even Woo seems to have abandoned him and has curried favor with Lee and Jang to advance his career.
Inside Men would have been a much darker (and perhaps more realistic) film if it had ended there, with the alliance between Ahn and Woo broken and Ahn jailed for naively trusting in the power of the justice system. However, Inside Men opts for a more hopeful note as the final reveal shows us that Woo was merely acting as an inside men so that he could collect more damning testimony that would turn the public against the cabal. Ultimately, justice prevails, or to be more precise, public sentiment helps justice prevails.
Some of the more problematic aspects of Inside Men – which speak more about the problems of society, rather than the script itself – include the fact that a former gangster like Ahn needed Woo, a district attorney and a representative of the “respectable” side of society, to aid him in his quest. “Would they believe me if I had evidence?” Aha asks Woo. “Well, who on earth would believe a gangster? But they’d believe you, don’t you think, Mr. Prosecutor?” While the film lambasts the complicity between the sectors of power in South Korea’s society – politicians, conglomerations, and the media – perhaps a more reflective critique could be aimed towards the equally powerful role of public opinion and prejudice.
In Inside Men, the drives of justice, vengeance, and personal advancement converge as Ahn and Woo conspire in a David versus Goliath-like battle against Lee, Jang, and Oh. However, Ahn’s trajectory may hold greater emotional resonance as his is propelled by personal loss and betrayal. Unfortunately, although Inside Men frequently alludes to the brotherly bond shared between Ahn and Lee, their pasts together remain unfleshed out. And while the actors Lee Byung-hun and Cho Seung-woo share great chemistry, the development of friendship between Ahn and Woo can at times feel truncated and by-the-numbers. Inside Men’s failure to portray the depth of Ahn’s relationship with Lee and Woo therefore detracts from the brunt of their betrayals of Ahn, which is at its essence the emotional core of the film.
Inside Men is showing as part of the New York Asian Film Festival on Tuesday July 5 at the Walter Reade Theater at 8:30pm. Tickets can be purchased from the Film Society of Lincoln Center website.