Going By the Book is a comedy written (in part) by the talented Jang Jin and you can see his flourishes all over it, and while it's directed by another man, it has a lot of Jang's hallmarks in it. Unfortunately, like many of Jang's films, this one is pretty even and the story logic falls apart. What's more is that the premise and setups have great comic potential but I feel that it doesn't deliver on its potential.
The premise is awesome and made me buy the movie blind: A "by the book" straight-laced traffic cop pulls over and tickets the incoming chief of police on his inauguration day. Meanwhile, the small town that they live in is plagued by a string of bank robberies that the police are clueless on in how to respond and stop. Losing face, the new chief of police decides to save the force's face by doing a publicized "training" robbery, which will be simulated, but otherwise treated as real. And possibly as an act of vengeance, the police chief picks the traffic cop, Doman, to be the robber. Of course, what he didn't bargain for is that Doman is extremely dutiful and begins preparing the perfect robbery.
See? Can't you see the potential oozing out of that idea? I sure can.
But there's a big problem in its execution as well as the second half's story issues. First of all, the director (and possibly editor) doesn't seem to have a good grasp on comic timing and drawing out the comedy from Jang's very wry type of humor. Consequently, the delivery of some rather good jokes is unfortunately underplayed and failed to get even a laugh out of me. Worse, the logical glue of this simulation sometimes falls apart. While the story is partially pitted as two arrogant individuals, Doman and the chief of police, battle out this simulation, it's implied that Doman was a solid detective who lost his position for chasing after the governor and is assumed to be bright. Unfortunately, half of his successes seem to be out of pure luck, which undermines the tenseness of the battle. In the second half, the script tries to pull an Inside Man/Ocean's Eleven type switcharoo, but it's completely unbelievable due to the fact that the hostages have no reason to cooperate when they reach that point. Even if they were doing it out of sympathy for Doman, Doman never really earns this. A national media subplot also exists and it goes nowhere.
The film also engages in some flights of fancy, but I don't feel that they were well incorporated into the film and, as a result, often feel jarring to the otherwise realistic tone of the film. I feel like these parts needed to be introduced earlier to work, rather than a third into the film. Also, I often fail to understand what the point of the film is. It would have been far more interesting if Doman were more clever, especially to use the situation to get his old job back, but he's drawn too straightlaced for that. If he were more of a fool, perhaps it would've been interesting too, as everyone gets frustrated by the fool. Also, the ending seems too much of a cop out, trying to provide a sort of payoff that wasn't really earned and also circumstantial. Finally, the last scene is pretty ridiculous. I think if the "real robbers" were more incorporated in the script it would've helped add more dynamism to an often static situation.
In terms of lensing, framing, etc., the directing was fine and even features some good shots. The acting ranges from good (the protagonist/antagonist do fairly well) to wooden. Some of the supporting characters had a lot of opportunity to add more to the film, but really didn't pull off the comedy well. Perhaps they were directed to play everything more deadpan, but I think it would've worked better if the players played their parts a little more realistically. It also robs the last scene of any comedy as well. I don't remember the score, but I don't think it was intrusive or particularly notable.
What we end up with here is a film with a boatload of potential, most of which is wasted by a script that fails to get anywhere meaningful, probably due to a lack of focus, characteristic of Jang, and a rather underwhelming execution. I still love the premise, but I really can't recommend this film because it just doesn't work as well as it should. It's a bit of a disappointment. 5/10.
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