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It Takes a Thief, or a Cop Who Thinks Like One

MOVIE REVIEW
Going by the Book (2007)

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Heist movies can be a wellspring of creativity for talented screenwriters and directors ("Rififi," "Dog Day Afternoon," "Reservoir Dogs"). But without innovation, the conventions of set-up, heist, failed negotiations and foiled plans become stale and formulaic. Filmmaker Ra Hee-chan’s debut feature “Going by the Book” goes refreshingly high-concept in its attempt to offer all the commercial pleasures of the familiar heist premise with a slyly comic spin. Penned by Jang Jin, “Going by the Book” comes across at times as the breezier offspring of Johnny To’s one-track-minded "Mad Detective," with the hilarious genre satire of "Hot Fuzz."

Marvelously deadpan Jung Jae-young plays straight-arrow police officer Jung Do-man. Do-man means well, but his strict adherence to the rules annoys his superiors and gets him demoted from investigator to traffic cop. He continues to draw the wrath of his department after slapping the new police chief with a ticket for speeding to his inaugural ceremony. The new police chief is brought to the upper-class small town to investigate a spate of recent bank robberies, which have resulted in no leads and no arrests. Townspeople are beginning to get wary of patronizing the local banks, and the police force is looking increasingly inept. The chief, still smarting from the speeding ticket, casts Do-man as the robber in a highly-publicized bank-robbery training exercise designed to improve their image. Plans go awry when the meticulous and dedicated Do-man takes the fake heist a bit too seriously, taking hostages and outsmarting the chief every step of the way on national television.

“Going by the Book” goes all meta when the hostages show their familiarity with heist narratives by explaining the robber’s motivations for various acts and eventually offering ideas of their own – Do-man even watches heist movies as part of his research. Beneath the impassive expression, Do-man has fun pretending to be someone who breaks the rules for once even as the cop side of him is dismayed at how the police are bungling things. An equal amount of tense and raucous moments are drawn from the lengths Do-man goes to in his charade.

Mr. Jung is an appealing lead, uniquely able to project stoicism and vulnerability. His Do-man is an adult version of the nerdy kid from every junior high, who takes too much pride in being hall monitor or the student council president that insists on following parliamentary procedures all the time. Do-man sincerely believes that he is performing a public service by playing his assigned role to the hilt and secretly wants someone to give him a gold star for all the hard work and heart he puts into his job.   

The film benefits from the sparkling supporting cast that delivers the bulk of the physical humor and punchlines. As the hostages and bumbling SWAT team members whose best attempts at ending the exercise are repeatedly thwarted, they develop a grudging respect for Do-man and his elaborate plans. Budding puppy love with a predictably quirky and understanding bank teller suggest that change will soon be injected into the staid routines of Do-man’s life.

“Going by the Book’s” plot narrowly avoids over-stretching the suspension of disbelief through the sheer force of its lighthearted charm. Mr. Ra’s debut manages to sneak in elements of social satire while being the most well-made, entertaining and downright likeable take on the bank heist in a very long time.

GOING BY THE BOOK

Directed by Ra Hee-chan; written (in Korean, with English subtitles) by Jang Jin, based on a story by Kunihiko Toi and a screenplay by Hiroshi Saito; director of photography, Kim Joon-yeong; edited by Han Jae-kwon; produced by Kim Joon-yeong. Running time: 1 hour 42 minutes.

WITH:  Jung Jae-young (Do-man) and Ju Jin-mo (Ji Jeom-jang).

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