Director: Choi Ho
Producer: Park Sang-Hyun
Cast: Lee Jeong-Jae, Shin Ha-Gyun, Lee Sung-Min, BoA, Kim Yui-Seong, Bae Sung-Woo, Son Ho-Jun, Kim Yun-Sung, Choi Woo-Sik, Park Doo-Sik
Running Time: 112 min.
By Paul Bramhall
Director Choi Ho is certainly not someone you could say is afraid of working at his own pace. Since his feature debut in 1998 with the youth drama Bye June, skip forward 16 years and Big Match is only his fifth movie, with perhaps his most famous being the 2006 effort Bloody Ties, an action thriller which starred Ryoo Seung-beom and Hwang Jeong-min. While none of his movies have been runaway box office success stories, he’s a director who is still able to attract big names, as his latest production Big Match proves with a cast headed by Lee Jeong-jae and Sin Ha-gyoon.
Jeong-jae and Ha-gyoon also shared the screen together in the 2012 blockbuster The Thieves, in which Ha-gyoon has a cameo as the rich businessman that Jeong-jae steals a rare antique from to kick things off. Since then Jeong-jae has been on a roll, with starring roles in the gangster thriller The New World, and The Thieves director Choi Dong-hoon’s The Assassination. Ha-gyoon hasn’t been quite so lucky, and Big Match marks his first return to the big screen since the poorly received 2013 production Running Man, which thanks to Fox International Productions has its place as the first (and last?) Korean movie to be completely financed by a Hollywood studio.
The plot of Big Match could well have been thrown together during a night of heavy intoxication. It takes the ‘Simon Says’ elements of movies like Die Hard with a Vengeance, mixes them with the illegal betting syndicates seen in the likes of Bangkok Knockout, and hopes for the best. We’re quickly introduced to Jeong-jae’s character, Zombie, an MMA fighter who wanted to be a soccer player, but since he played a match which saw him beat the daylights out of everyone on the opposing side, his brother decided that MMA was a better fit. His brother is played by regular supporting actor Lee Sung-min, and it’s not long into the movie we discover he’s been kidnapped by Ha-gyoon. The only way for Jeong-jae to get him back, is to play a dangerous game of cat and mouse around the city, having instructions fed into his ear by Ha-gyoon of where he should go and what he should do.
That’s the extent of the plot for Big Match, I’m not really sure I could add anymore to it even if I wanted to. Ha-gyoon cruises around the city in a blacked out van surrounded by monitors and touch screen displays, extravagantly gesturing and yelling out new bets and challenges that Jeong-jae has to complete, and then it’s Jeong-jae’s job to make sure he completes them. On paper, Big Match looks like a half baked concept. Ripping off two genres that aren’t even popular at the moment, it’s almost a given that most people who want to check it out will likely have low expectations and not be hoping for much. It is then, perhaps for this very reason, that Big Match turns out to be a surprisingly entertaining time at the movies.
From the get go Ho ensures that this is not a production which is looking to take itself seriously. Jung-jae and Ha-gyoon might as well be playing a pair of cartoon characters – Jung-jae as the quick tempered MMA fighter running around the city, and Ha-gyoon as the villainous mastermind laughing it up from behind closed doors. Big Match also earns points for keeping things humorous throughout, there are plenty of sight gags, and the dialogue is often on the ball as well. Clearly not afraid of coming across as absurd, in one scene Ha-gyoon tells Jung-jae that the ankle bracelet he’s wearing is a bomb, and outlines the conditions that will set if off. Jeong-jae proceeds to break down into histrionics, only instead of begging for his life, through a maniacal grin he yells “This is great! I’m so excited I could shit myself!”
These laugh out loud moments punctuate the runtime of Big Match, which includes probably the most unique karaoke rendition you’ll see in a movie. The breakneck pacing in maintained for the entire 110 minutes, never stopping for any overly long exposition or meaningful moments, and unlike so many Korean comedies, it doesn’t betray itself by turning everything on its head in the finale and pouring on the melodrama. Ho’s intention seems to have been to create a fun flick from start to finish, and in that regard, the movie is a success.
Big Match is at its core though, an action flick. From the moment Jeong-jae finds the door of the prison cell he’s in being remotely opened thanks to Ha-gyoon, he’s pitted against police officers, gangsters, MMA fighters, and even K-pop star BoA is thrown into the mix. Many of the action scenes are played for laughs, which perfectly fit in with the overall tone, however we do get treated to some surprise set pieces that are likely to satisfy action fans.
In particular, at the 40 minute mark Jeong-jae finds himself in the traditional OldBoy style predicament – a corridor, he’s standing at one end of it, and a group of armed gangsters standing at the other. It’s a great scene, and just like Gareth Evans has proved to us with The Raid and its sequel, it shows that it is possible to have an action sequence in which the camera is constantly moving, and still be able to see everything. All of the angles work perfectly, adding impact, complimenting the moves, and most importantly of all, capturing everything that’s going on. The fact that it gets quite bloody is just a bonus.
The lack of reliance on CGI for many of the stunt scenes is also a bonus worth mentioning, which means that sometimes it’s possible to see Jeong-jae’s double ducking out the way of a speeding car, or being thrown across a room. In an age in which CGI has become the quick and easy solution to create almost anything, essentially robbing audiences of the excitement of seeing an actual stuntman perform his craft, it adds a nice old school charm to proceedings to see doubles still being used for stunt work.
Some may dismiss Big Match as an overly simple exercise in genre film-making, and to some degree it would be difficult to argue with them. It doesn’t offer anything new, and the whole thing is a decidedly one dimensional affair, however what it does do is offer something old. Old school CGI free action, old school plotting which doesn’t feel the need to throw in a twist ending, and old school characters that might well be nothing but caricatures, but at the end of the day, who doesn’t look at a caricature and find it even a little bit amusing?
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 7/10