Review: MIDNIGHT RUNNERS Reaches Finish Line with Gags, Brawls and Thrills (Korea)

Koala director Kim Joo-hwan graduates to commercial cinema in fine form with the entertaining youth cop comedy-thriller Midnight Runners. Featuring heartthrobs Park Seo-joon (Chronicles of Evil) and Kang Ha-neul (Dongju: The Portrait of a Poet) in roles that are equal parts cute and heroic, this slick bromance should prove particularly popular with young women at home.

Rambunctious Ki-joon and bookish Hee-yeol, new recruits at the police academy in Seoul, become unlikely friends during their grueling exercises. A few years into their training, the pair head to the clubs in Gangnam but after striking out they witness a young woman being stuffed into a black van. Heeding their instructor’s advice, they race against the clock to solve the case during the golden 7-hour period.

From a story and character perspective, Midnight Runners doesn’t do anything special in its setup, recycling routine boot camp tropes with a a budding friendship that evolves from childish one-upmanship. Yet in the hands of director Kim, clarity and confidence pervade the style of the film, while even unremarkable moments are elevated through good timing and his strong sense for what makes a joke or emotional beat land in the right way.

When the main plot kicks into gear, after the boot camp first act, the amateur sleuthing by the pair is more earnest than amusing but as they finally hit some action, the film finds its stride again. First it’s with a thunderous encore from a training camp gag before the film’s action and thriller stakes raise up as we are dragged into a Chinese-Korean organ trafficking gang’s territory.

The film’s back half is choke-full of brawls and gags, while some darker victim POV inserts keep the narrative from sliding into slapstick mode. The middle of the story takes place late at night as the pair switch from Gangnam club-hoppers to back alleys brawlers in the Daerim-dong Chinatown. Jumping from lead to lead as the tension rises right up until dawn, this mid-section benefits from good pacing until a narrative shift extends the film’s timeline.

Past this point we’re back in familiar territory, as a montage guides us through a calm-before-the-storm period until we reach a low-key and somewhat contrived but nevertheless satisfying climax. Fight scenes are for the most part effective but might have benefited from more aggressive choreography.

For a film that is bound to rely on a young female audience, one moment that leaves a sour taste is the scene that kicks off the main mystery of the narrative. Our two protagonists have failed to land partners during a night on the town, so when they see a pretty girl walk past them, they decide to follow her through dark streets for several blocks, as they try and figure out who should approach her. Though their intentions may be benign, it is uncomfortable to witness this behavior from police cadets who, mere minutes later, will start on their paths to become the very same girl’s knights in shining armor.

Between the leads, it is Park who fares best, but only because it’s easier to accept him as this character. No matter how large the spectacles that Kang adorns, his nerdy recruit is a tough sell. That said, while the differences between the two fade away over time, the bond between the leads is strong enough to make the comedy work. Veteran Sung Dong-il (The Accidental Detective) adds a touch of class as a respected police academy instructor.

Director Kim knows his audience and Midnight Runners firmly and successfully caters to a younger generation of Korean viewers. While older spectators may not be bowled over by his commercial debut, his skill for balance and tone could easily could be transposed to different genres in the future.

By Pierce Conran

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