I was waiting my whole life for someone to make a movie about fried chicken. I didn’t know that until I actually saw Extreme Job, which is currently playing at AMC Grapevine Mills. This Korean comic action flick would be enjoyable even without the starring turn by its fried chicken, but having a cop thriller double as the best food movie I’ve seen in a while is a most welcome bonus.
Ryu Seung-ryong (he played the villain in The Admiral: Roaring Currents) stars as Capt. Ko, the head of a Seoul narcotics unit that’s staffed with good officers but is repeatedly sabotaged by bad luck. Ko has watched all his younger colleagues win promotions over him, something that a Korean cop would find more humiliating than his American counterpart. Anyway, one of those younger colleagues gives Ko a tip out of pity: A meth importer calling himself Mubae (Shin Ha-kyun) has bought an empty building in a run-down neighborhood and is clearly planning to use it for something. Ko and his cops decide to stake out the place from the failing fried-chicken joint across the street, but when they find out it’s due to go out of business, Ko takes out his pension money to buy the restaurant. “If I lose my job, I’ll probably need this place,” he reasons. Not only that, South Korean fried chicken places deliver their food, so he figures an officer posing as a deliveryman might be able to see the inside of Mubae’s operations.
If you haven’t tried Korean fried chicken, you need to, and I say this as a fan of the buttermilk-brined American version. Koreans double-fry their chicken in a cornstarch batter for extra crispiness that stands up for hours even under a layer of sweet hot sauce. The twist in both the plot and the cooking comes when Detective Ma (Jin Seon-kyu) is assigned to do the frying because his parents ran a restaurant in Suwon, the spiritual home of Korean fried chicken. The trouble is, that restaurant was a rib place, and Ma doesn’t know how to make sauce for chicken, so in a pinch, he bastes the chicken with rib sauce. (Korean rib sauce is soy-based like chicken sauce, but it lacks the key ingredient of gochujang, which provides red color and heat.) The rib-sauced chicken is such a hit that the restaurant traffic makes Mubae move his drug operation out of the building. All isn’t lost, though, because Mubae invests in the restaurant and starts holding serious talks with the cops about franchising. A second location staffed by Mubae’s gangsters opens, and when Ko sees YouTube footage of the mobsters being unsanitary and rude to customers, he storms into the drug lord’s den and yells at him: “You’re ruining our brand!”
Aside from the mouth-watering shots of fried chicken, the movie has laughs, too. Korean humor doesn’t always translate to our sensibilities, but you don’t need to be Korean to find the opening scene funny, when the cops’ drug sting goes wrong. Their efforts to conduct the operation without endangering the civilians on the street result in a 16-car pileup at an intersection. “That last car crashed deliberately,” says one undaunted cop afterwards. “I saw the dent in the front bumper. We can get that guy for insurance fraud.” Later, Ko goes home from his stakeout and has to choke down his wife’s chicken stew after having eaten chicken all day. During the climactic fight on a boat, Ko and Mubae take a break from beating the gizzards out of each other for the drug lord to ask, “Who are you?” Ko responds in deadly earnest: “I’m a chicken man.”
The action sequences are a bit more hard-core than you might expect given what’s gone before, but the same group of actors who have spent the first half of the movie clowning around in a chicken joint turn out to be quite good at kicking and punching bad guys, too. Director Lee Byung-hyeon (this is his first movie to play in our area) manages the tone quite well as the movie goes between comedy and action. For all that, the overwhelming thing I took from this movie was a desire to buy rice vinegar and sesame seeds to whip up my next batch of KFC. Oh, and one of the lower-level villains in this movie runs his criminal operation out of a pizza joint. I’m smelling a sequel.
Starring Ryu Seung-ryong and Shin Ha-kyun. Directed by Lee Byung-hyeon. Written by Bae Se-young. Not rated.