The Unjust

2 out of 5

Directed by: Ryoo Seung-wan

Protagonists don’t have to be likeable. It can be a risky gamble, but set your characters up in an intriguing enough concept, or in a well-told story, and you can have some wiggle room, supposing that either the concept / story is the focus – not necessarily the characters – or that the unlikeable quality is something that gets indirectly explored as we go along, putting the viewer (or reader) in a compromised position in which they come to understand why this person is the way they are; how they’ve come to be unlikeable.

The Unjust has elements very suggestive of the former arrangement, using its two hours to explore the corrupt politicking behind the South Korean justice system, with the loss of the main suspect in a string of grisly child murders encouraging a plot to provide the public with a patsy, keeping the police (and their governmental bosses) in good standing; but it also tries the latter, as police captain Choi Cheol-gi (Hwang Jung-min) aims to keep his head above water while participating in this plot, setting him against D.A. Joo Yang (Ryoo Seung-bum).

Writer Park Hoon-jung and director Ryoo Seung-wan move very fast through this setup, setting up a rivalry between Choi and Joo thanks to some indirect, shady money dealings that connect them, and there is a refreshing frankness to the movie’s whole arrangement: it does not try to cloud what its characters are getting up to. They’re all off, on varying levels of the scale of grey morality, hoping for power, or money. Even the “good” cops on Choi’s side take bribes; and Joo is a slimeball, but he’s been raised that way.

At least, that’s where the film is hoping to get some leeway, making the focus not so much on the patsy play – which cycles through Choi getting involved with the mob, and the inevitable double-crosses that occur from that – but rather trying to keep the camera above either Choi’s or Joo’s shoulder the whole while. And while both Jung-min and Seung-bum sell the key attributes of their roles well (Jung-min’s quiet-to-loud fury; Seung-bum’s scene-chewing explosiveness), neither is written to really be nuanced enough to make their screentime worthwhile. Choi’s side of things has some more depth built in, with concerns for family and friends, but these feel just like required details, not actually lived-in elements of the characters; Joo is corrupt through and through, and yet, the movie occasionally treats him like someone who’s side we might be on, mixing up his personal vendetta with proper justice.

…Which is part of the point, as-is the fact that no one is “clean” in this arrangement, but the blunt storytelling makes those points plain after like ten minutes, and then has trouble finding character arcs that are properly compelling to carry us through expounding that same point over and again for the remaining runtime.