Ryoo Seung-wan delivers a weighty action sequel to 2015’s blockbuster Veteran

Veteran 2

Source: Cannes Film Festival

‘I, The Executioner’

Dir: Ryoo Seung-wan. South Korea. 2024. 118mins

In the long-awaited sequel to his 2015 blockbuster Veteran, South Korean director Ryoo Seung-wan delivers the expected top-flight action sequences but tones down the comedy, resulting in a more satisfying and sober follow-up that wrestles with the ways in which rampant violence can poison society. That is not to suggest that I, The Executioner isn’t a thoroughly entertaining picture, but the original’s often jokey humour has largely been excised as Hwang Jung-min’s intrepid police detective tracks down a vigilante serial killer, dispatching his own bloody brand of justice. The foot races, car chases and fight scenes are the obvious selling points, but the edgier tone of this instalment is welcome.

 This instalment’s edgier tone is welcome

Titled Veteran 2 in South Korea, the film premieres in an Out Of Competition slot at Cannes, the first time the action auteur has been part of the official slate. (His 2005 drama Crying Fist played in Directors’ Fortnight.) Ryoo’s track record should be a draw for genre fans, as will the return of superstar Hwang, joined by Jung Hae-in as an eager new detective. 

Adjusting to being a husband and father, Do-cheol (Hwang) remains a stellar cop – even if he worries that his action-packed job is negatively affecting his young son, who emulates his violent ways at school. But this celebrated veteran detective must also contend with a mysterious killer, dubbed Haechi, who is systematically murdering criminals he believes were not properly punished for their crimes. Teaming up with ambitious rookie Sun-woo (Jung), who joined the Major Crimes unit expressly because of his admiration for our hero, Do-cheol goes on the hunt for Haechi, quickly realising that copycat killers are springing up.

I, The Executioner’s opening features a lighthearted, slapstick-y action sequence that feels very much of a piece with Veteran’s irreverent mix of comedy and cop procedural. But while there are a few scattered laughs afterward, this sequel is a more straightforward action-thriller in which Do-cheol must match wits with a slippery, masked killer. Thankfully, though, the more sober approach does not mean that Ryoo succumbs to self-seriousness. Indeed, I, The Executioner moves along at a brisk pace, the action set pieces and the whodunit elements equally compelling. At the same time, the film weaves in some social commentary, addressing #MeToo, fake news and the corrosiveness of our violent culture. But credit Ryoo for demonstrating a soft touch with such potentially weighty issues.

Not as rambunctious as in the first chapter, which envisioned his detective character as fairly cartoonish, Hwang impresses with his no-nonsense portrayal, especially once Do-cheol’s son is drawn into this manhunt in surprising ways. (Do-cheol will have to grapple with his own complicated legacy as an ass-kicking cop.) Meanwhile, Jung brings a jolt as Sun-woo, a formidable fighting force who is more agile and risk-taking than his ageing idol. But the actor also hints at Sun-woo’s darker side, suggesting that this rookie may be too attracted to the life-and-death rush of police work.

Ryoo stages compact, intense action scenes, making particularly good use of rain-soaked rooftops and claustrophobic highway tunnels. (The film also features the best set piece involving an impossibly long, steep stairwell since John Wick: Chapter 4.) The hand-to-hand combat and martial-arts mayhem are well-choreographed without ever feeling over-orchestrated, with Bae Youn-tae’s uncluttered editing allowing the propulsive images space to breathe. 

Unfortunately, some of I, The Executioner’s plotting can be pedestrian, and the previous film’s appealing supporting cast — such as Jang Yoon-ju’s resourceful Miss Bong — are not given prominent roles. (Additionally, the sequel’s eventual villain lacks some of the menace Yoo Ah-in supplied in Veteran.) But on the whole, this instalment is a confident step up from the original. I, The Executioner may have more on its mind, but not to the detriment of the bone-crushing escapism that defined the first chapter.

Production company: Filmmakers R&K 

International sales: CJ ENM, jm.park24@cj.net 

Producers: Kang Hye-jung, Cho Sung-min, Ryoo Seung-wan

Screenplay: Lee Won-jae, Ryoo Seung-wan 

Cinematography: Choi Young-hwan 

Production design: Han Ah-rum

Editing: Bae Youn-tae 

Music: Chang Ki-ha 

Main cast: Hwang Jung-min, Jung Hae-in, Oh Dal-su