Confidential Assignment’s premise is going to sound familiar to anyone who’s seen Red Heat. A strict cop from North Korea must team up with a loose cop from South Korea to take down a villain from his own country. Buddy cop comedies work best the further divided the partners in question are, and what better way to exploit that than this?
But where Red Heat is too dour and lacks the charm and chemistry required for these things to work (sorry if you disagree, but I’ve tried so many times to enjoy that movie), Confidential Assignment nails all the hallmarks of what a buddy cop comedy should provide: good action, good bickering, a few great action scenes and a villain that truly brings both sides of the equation together.
Hyun Bin plays Im Cheol-ryung, a North Korean cop after a defecting criminal with counterfeiting money plates that could bring the world down upon North Korea - and who happened to take out his entire team, including his wife. Bin offers the kind of super cop archetype that should be familiar to fans of Korean cinema: little, fast, silent and above all, handsome like crazy.
His South Korean counterpart is played by Yoo Hae-jin. With his clowny comic face, Hae-jin’s Jin-tae at first threatens to be too broad an opposite to Cheol-ryung, too foolish and bad at his job to care if the two ever come together in partnership. It doesn’t take long for him to prove his worth, not just with his big heart but his bravery, fighting skills (when forced) and general tenacity.
Both cops have superiors who demand one keeps secrets from the other while also sussing out what those secrets might be, which means the really good stuff we want to see takes a bit longer to come around and contributes the most bloat to the film’s 130-minute running time. On the other hand, the film’s rather soft version of North Korea is hard enough to believe already and not acknowledging the severe distrust between the two countries would probably break the film’s premise, whereas now the suspension of disbelief works.
Much of the film’s heart arrives in scenes where the stoic Cheol-ryung must spend time with Jin-tae’s modern South Korean family, including his wife, a cute child, and his freeloading sister-in-law. As any Lethal Weapon fan can tell you, this is a classic way to wear down the rough edges of an outsider, and it works here like gangbusters.
The film also has great action, including gun fights, hand-to-hand combat and some really fun car chases. There’s a weird over-reliance on letting the bad guys get away at the end of these scenes, but as is typical of Korean action, everything is shot well and edited to be both thrilling AND comprehensible. Confidential Assignment solely wants to entertain and provide a fun movie. Which means it lacks the Korean penchant for wicked tone shifts or surprisingly graphic violence. It doesn’t necessarily pull its punches though.
Despite its generic title, this is one genre fans should be looking out for. It feels like a modern extension of a ‘80s action films without trying to mimic their aesthetic for kitsch, making it feel genuine despite its similarities to other films (again, Red Heat in particular). It is a little long, but I’m not sure what I would dare cut out.