**please note, this post contains spoilers, so enter @ your own risk ^o^
Runaway: Plan B premiered this past week to huge intro ratings, setting KBS up for yet another hit this year. (You may know the title as Fugitive: Plan B but don’t worry if you’re confused, since not even the drama’s official site is keeping things consistent.)
What we get here is a stylish action drama that is — let’s face it — pretty fluffy entertainment but executed well and with a cheeky attitude. It knows exactly what it is, and plays that to the hilt. The casting is spot-on and the action sequences are designed to achieve maximum cool effect.
Did I like it? Very much in parts, and not much at all in other parts. It’s complicated. We’ll get to that.
CHARACTERS & BACKGROUND
Our hero, JI-WOO (Rain) is a ball of contradictions, but somehow they all come together to make up Asia’s top private investigator. On the outside he’s got a glib, sly, pervy personality who can’t let a pair of shapely legs walk by without a good ogling, even if he’s proposing to a girlfriend at the moment (a cameo by Chuno‘s Lee Da-hae). Yet we see in bits and pieces that he’s got a super-sharp mind and keen observation skills — nothing slips past his notice.
In fact, it’s his reckless demeanor that probably fools people into not taking him seriously, when mentally he’s making a note of every little thing. He’s also a font of knowledge of facts and statistics, which no doubt help in his line of work.
Ji-woo runs his own firm, a sophisticated operation with a network of affiliate PIs in other countries. More on them in a minute. He’s a nimble fighter who can wriggle out of tough spots with admirable skill — it’s not that he’s got the best martial arts technique, but that he fights smart (or dirty). He takes advantage of every blind spot and lapse in his opponent’s defenses.
He’s described as having a brain but lacking a soul. And sure enough, when taking cases, money is his biggest motivator. His company motto? “If it can be done, we’ll do it.”
JIN-YI (Lee Na-young) is a mysterious woman with a pained past. When she was a child, her grandparents died in a car crash. When she was a teenager, her parents died. And then her adopted parents were killed, but their deaths ruled a suicide. She figures she’s probably next to go, and lives in a fancy mansion equipped with the highest-grade security system. Her riches come from her inheritance, which was invested wisely.
She’s a woman on a revenge mission, out to find who killed everyone she loves, and one day shows up as Ji-woo’s new client.
KAI (Daniel Henney) is, or maybe was, in a relationship with Jin-yi back when they lived in blissful happiness in Canada. He still wears a ring — part of a couple set — but she doesn’t. It’s not that she doesn’t love him (in fact, she tells him straight out that she does), but she fears for his life because everyone close to her has been killed. Kai is a successful businessman who’s based in Japan, and keeps urging her to move there where he can keep her safe.
THE DETECTIVE NETWORK
Ji-woo’s profession is technically illegal in Korea (apparently due to concern for personal privacy and related matters), which is part of the reason why his business is kept underground. There’s also the matter of him being wanted for murder. More on that in a sec.
Ji-woo often works with other investigators in other countries, such as Nakamura in Japan (Chuno’s Sung Dong-il, above left), James in Thailand (Chuno’s Jo Hee-bong, middle), Jang in China (Chuno’s Gong Hyung-jin — noticing a pattern?), and Han Jung-soo in Korea (also of Chuno, at right).
Despite this working relationship, nobody really trusts him, and there’s a running gag that everyone is suspicious that Ji-woo is recording their conversations. He usually is. That’s because he likes using it as leverage to negotiate the situation in his favor — like I said, he takes any and every advantage he can find.
Ji-woo’s U.S. contact used to be his good friend Kevin (Chuno’s Oh Ji-ho), and they worked together in Las Vegas on a case that netted them quite the large profit, awarded by the casino for solving the matter of two deaths. But days later, Kevin died in a fire, and the prevailing belief — by law enforcement and even Ji-woo’s own employees — is that Ji-woo offed his own friend to take all the money for himself.
Ji-woo maintains his innocence, and deeply grieves his friend’s death. In fact, his normally mischievous personality immediately turns grave the moment anybody mentions Kevin. The circumstances of the “accident” are shady, but as yet he doesn’t know who the true murderer is.
This team of detectives, led by DO-SOO (Lee Jung-jin, omgsohot), is assigned to foreign affairs and has been following Ji-woo for a while now. Once, Do-soo almost had Ji-woo — he’d gotten as far as slapping handcuffs on him — but Ji-woo had slipped away.
Do-soo’s a no-nonsense, gruff cop who is the best in the department. As the squad chief, he was widely expected to be promoted to the next level… only to have his undeserving subordinate, Detective Baek, nab the position (Chuno’s Danny Ahn) after Daddy pulled some strings. Still, I like to think Do-soo gets the last laugh because he’s got an innate sense of authority and the team still responds to him as the leader. Baek likes to pull rank and flaunt his position, but Do-soo’s all about getting the job done.
YOON SO-RAN (Yoon Jin-seo) is one of his subordinate officers, and while her name was fashioned from the hanja characters for “little orchid,” most people find that other meaning more appropriate — “so-ran” also means disturbance. She’s not a bumbling idiot, but she is hotheaded and acts before thinking. She also has a crush on Do-soo, though (thankfully) it doesn’t get in the way of the job. At least not yet.
HWANG MI-JIN (Yoon Son-ah) is a professor at a Japanese university and our resident femme fatale/conductor of evil. I won’t call her a mastermind yet because I believe she’s working for superiors, but as of now she’s the one calling the shots.
The other woman is hired by Mi-jin and leads a small team of hired goons. The less said about her acting the better. She’s pretty.
EPISODES 1 & 2
We open with our requisite cool action sequence off the northern Philippine coast as Ji-woo emerges from the ocean à la James Bond, swaps his diving gear for a waiter’s uniform, joins a resort party, and steals an artifact. He gets caught in close-quarters combat, then escapes on motorcycle.
He is chased by mobsters shooting machine guns out of jeeps, somehow able to avoid being shot by hundreds of bullets. He shoots a whole carful of said gangsters dead, using naught but a single handgun and some magical precision aim — mind you, he shoots them all while popping a wheelie — and slides off the bike, sending it careening it into an oncoming sedan of more baddies. He struts off into the distance, his shirt flapping open in the breeze, while the vehicles explode into a huge fireball behind him.
Does it make sense? Not entirely — but it sure looks cool!
Ji-woo’s next case involves a painting that was stolen right off the wall of a Buddhist temple. The monk wants it back for sentimental reasons, but Ji-woo, smelling an opportunity to hike up the value of the painting (and therefore his commission), argues that the value of an artwork is fluid. He can increase its worth by pushing the “one-of-a-kind” angle… only it’s not one of a kind. A copy hangs in another temple in Thailand.
Off Ji-woo goes to steal the second painting, which earns him a brief tussle with some hardcore Thai monks, but he prevails and returns home assured of a hefty payday.
Ji-woo has cracked the case, and explains to the monk what happened to the painting. Based on clues such as temperature, he deduces that the culprit used pressurized water jets to work the stone slab off the wall, then hid it nearby. At this very temple, in fact.
Outside, a woman (Jin-yi) eavesdrops on this conversation via a hidden camera in the monk’s chamber. She smirks at Ji-woo’s sharp deductions, as though grudgingly impressed. Sure enough, when Ji-woo leads the monk to a nearby storage shed, there they find the painting.
Ji-woo’s uncanny insights don’t end there: He surmises that the painting was set aside either to collect it later, or to test his ability. When he leaves the temple, Jin-yi comes up to the monk, who asks if Ji-woo is up to the job. It was, indeed, a test.
Do-soo debriefs his team on the Ji-woo case, and gets needled by douchebag Det. Baek about losing him the first time.
A flashback shows that encounter: They’d been in a foot chase that culminated in a hand-to-hand battle. Ji-woo had been all but apprehended, but even with his arm twisted behind his back, he’d swiped Do-soo’s gun from his holster. Despite the fierce antagonism between them, Ji-woo had asked if Do-soo was wearing his bulletproof vest before shooting him in the chest.
Jin-yi decides that Ji-woo has proven himself competent, so she visits his super-slick office to hire him. Ji-woo can’t pass up the opportunity to flirt with a good-looking woman, but Jin-yi shoots him down, unimpressed with his cheesy come-ons and exaggerated swagger.
He does agree to take on her case, difficult though it may be: to find Melchidec. She doesn’t know whether that’s a person or an organization and has no information other than the name, but offers a boatload of cash, which is enough to engage Ji-woo’s interest. He calls his foreign contacts — Nakamura in Tokyo, Jang in Beijing — to look into Melchidec.
As I mentioned, the only time Ji-woo’s flippant, devil-may-care attitude drops is at the mention of Kevin, and as he broods that evening, he thinks back to their Vegas case, when they’d been basking in their success. It seems he’s still working on figuring out who is guilty so he can clear his own name (and avenge Kevin’s death, I’m betting).
Back in her heavily protected mansion, Jin-yi cultivates her own Wall of Weird, decorated with clippings, photos, and information about Ji-woo. So what’s her deal?
Despite the state-of-the-art security system, a stealthy quartet of intruders is able to infiltrate the house late that night. Jin-yi jolts awake in time to grab a few essentials, then fights off a few men and rappels off the second story. The leader sees that Jin-yi’s got a long way to fall, and cuts the rope.
Meanwhile, Do-soo has been alerted to information about Ji-woo’s whereabouts, triggered by his phone call with Jang. They move out and arrive outside his office, and burst in with guns drawn.
Too bad for them that Ji-woo’s smarter than that, and the room they find is empty. Ji-woo’s safe in the inner sanctum, and watches the security camera with amusement as the cops find themselves stymied.
Jin-yi manages to land on her feet when her rope is cut and runs off, safe from her attackers for now. She doesn’t have much with her, so she phones Kai, who takes her call in concern.
Jin-yi doesn’t tell him she’s in trouble, but that doesn’t relieve his worries. He urges her to join him in Japan, but she sticks to her line that she won’t endanger him. All she requests is his help in the form of a hotel reservation.
Professor Hwang Mi-jin gives a lecture about gold bars that were part of the establishing of Hankook Bank, which was founded just two weeks prior to the outbreak of the Korean War. The gold was moved south to Busan for safekeeping, then moved again, headed for the U.S. However, when the war ended, the gold was unaccounted for. Perhaps the U.S. never gave it back, or perhaps they did yet Korea never received it. Surely this will figure largely in our story later.
Mi-jin then makes a phone call with a Macau contact regarding Ji-woo. The contact had worked with him on the Vegas suicide case, and curiously, Ji-woo is now working for the victims’ relative. Isn’t that odd?
Yep — Jin-yi’s murdered adopted parents were the very ones that Ji-woo had declared a simple case of suicide. The plot thickens.
Mi-jin exerts pressure to get Ji-woo’s phone number, which is then used to locate him via GPS. She orders the quartet (the same ones who’d been after Jin-yi) to get him.
They ambush him while he sits in traffic, holding a gun to his head. Without losing his cool, Ji-woo jerks the car forward, slams it to a halt, then engages in a close-quarters fight inside car. He runs away and loses his pursuers, only to come up against one last formidable foe. Ji-woo is outmatched skillwise, but some dirty fighting turns the tables in his favor and he knocks the guy out. He looks through the guy’s pockets and finds his phone.
When he calls a number, Mi-jin answers and asks, “Did you take care of it?” Ji-woo answers, “Yes.” Her next question catches him off-guard: “What about Jin-yi? You said the detective and Jin-yi were together—” which is when she realizes she’s been found out. (This can mean two things — either Jin-yi’s another target, or she’s an accomplice.)
Ji-woo calls Jin-yi to ask for a meeting, declaring that he has found Melchidec. He meets her in Busan for another of their not-quite-flirty, roundabout conversations. She wants his info, and dangles some of her own as leverage — she knows who killed Kevin. Neither wants to give in first, and both offer to give up their info after the other person has offered theirs. They settle for a ferry ride to Japan, which is where Melchidec is.
Kai’s secretary Sophie informs him that Jin-yi was seen entering her cabin with someone (Ji-woo), and presents the security footage as evidence. Kai considers the possibility that Jin-yi is being forced to accompany the man, but also tells Sophie to make sure Jin-yi isn’t aware he’s watching her.
On the ferry, more flirting is attempted, and rebuffed with a slap. Ji-woo is pretty much the definition of incorrigible.
In the cabin, Ji-woo pretends to take a shower to sneak a call to his PI friend, who has looked into Jin-yi’s background. It’s with shock that he hears that Jin-yi’s dead parents were the Vegas couple — and it makes him think of his attackers. Perhaps related?
Jin-yi does some snooping of her own, looking through Ji-woo’s bags and swiping his tablet computer — just as a ship crewmember creeps up to the room with a gun. But he’s friend, not foe, sent by Kai to extract her.
Ji-woo emerges to find the room empty: Jin-yi has disappeared. Back in Seoul, the cops get a report of a missing person on a boat to Japan. The person who filed the report is Ji-woo, albeit using a false name.
Ji-woo is therefore brought in to the police station, where yet another Chuno alum (Lee Jong-hyuk) handles the matter. Ji-woo is fixated on Jin-yi’s disappearance, saying she may have been kidnapped, but the official informs him that there is no trace of this woman on any of the ship’s cameras. It must have been Kai’s man who wiped the evidence of Jin-yi from the logs, and now the officers look at Ji-woo like he’s talking crazy.
Dressed as a crew member, Jin-yi is able to leave the boat without any fuss and is brought to Kai, who is relieved to welcome her with open arms.
Once more they go through their usual dance of him wanting to be together, and her telling him that she can’t risk him because she loves him. They’re actually quite sweet together.
The cops hie themselves to Japan, and Do-soo greets Ji-woo with a smile and a handshake. They have a mock-friendly exchange of salutations, but there’s no love lost here: Do-soo has been itching for this moment and he takes a heavy swing at Ji-woo, repaying him for that gunshot.
Ji-woo keeps his tone light, saying that Do-soo’s lost a lot of power in his punch, but his expression turns hard when Do-soo accuses him of killing Kevin and covering up the arson. He’s even got photos and a witness to incriminate him. Ji-woo glowers at Do-soo, insisting he’s innocent. He points out that the evidence is fishy — why do photos surface now when there were none before?
Handcuffed, Ji-woo is led to the door by two officers, but turns back for one last word to Do-soo: “You’re wearing your bulletproof vest, right?”
Immediately Do-soo understands what’s coming and he reaches for his gun, but Ji-woo is too fast for him: He swipes the gun from the officer’s holster and shoots Do-soo in the chest three times, then runs.
While Do-soo is down and the others to slow to react, Ji-woo fights his way out of the crowd in the hall and makes a break for it. Do-soo painfully gets to his feet and pursues.
The chase takes both men through ha-llways, down stairs, and through more ha-llways. Ji-woo looks right, then left, weighing his exit options. You can practically hear him thinking, “Oh, ” — the windows at either end of the hall are equally far away — and he picks one.
Do-soo gets out his gun and aims as Ji-woo takes a dive out the window, through shattered glass and into open air.
I had a hard time trying to figure out what I felt about Runaway. It was fun and funny. Definitely well-made, with the director’s trademark flair, and boasting a cast that is incredibly good-looking and charismatic. The plot is complicated but potentially interesting — there are a LOT of characters, and a lot of plot threads, so it’s to their credit that it’s relatively easy to follow the story once the premise is established.
But where’s that tug, that extra dash of interest, that connection to the characters? I don’t think every drama has to be moving or emotional or dramatic, but it does have to make me connect with it on a gut level. I’m not there yet with this drama.
Ultimately, I had to conclude that this drama is high on style, but lacks a soul. Funny enough, I decided that before recalling the last time a drama made me think that — Chuno, this writer-director duo’s previous drama.
Runaway certainly prizes cool. It’s slick, over-the-top, peppered with cheek, and overflowing with braggadocio. It’s not as serious as IRIS, but it stops short of being the total campfest that was A Man Called God. I mean this as a good thing, and the drama owes the director for finding that sweet spot making it feel like a mindlessly fun summer blockbuster. Everything is shot, acted, and orchestrated with the primary concern of Looking Cool, from the gratuitous action scenes to the gratuitous boobs and legs and washboard abs (not complaining!) to the casting of people who can’t act merely because they’re bilingual.
Side note: It’s a pet peeve of mine that this drama throws around languages like we’re supposed to be so impressed with its multiculturalism. Sometimes it works — I actually like how Daniel Henney mixes his English and Korean, because that’s totally how Korean-Americans talk — but if you’re gonna do it, shouldn’t you pay attention? For instance, the website gives the spelling as Melgidec, but the drama used Melchidec. Ji-woo’s own name has been spelled Gi-woo (website), Gee-woo (website and drama), and Jiwoo (drama). (Not to mention that his huge wall logo describes his job as, apparently, an inverstigator.)
I’m not pointing it out merely to be nitpicky — mistakes happen. I’m mentioning it because if you’re going to put on airs about being so global and cool and smart, then maybe you put your money where your mouth is and take some care with those pretensions. Is all I’m saying.
I know, I know, you’re griping that I’m being too picky, right? Somewhere in the world someone is writing me hate mail that reads, “GOD, it’s just a drama! Can’t you shut up and enjoy it?”
The thing is, if I felt the least bit of connection to it that scratched beneath the shiny-pretty surface, I wouldn’t mind the little things. Heck, I’ve fallen in love with much worse shows because they got to me somehow. But since that extra quality is missing, I feel this niggling sense of dissatisfaction in the back of my head and I’m trying to examine why that is.
Of course, now that I’ve harped on the stuff I don’t like, now I feel the need to come back ’round and defend it, because at the end of the day the first two episodes entertained me. I like the actors. Rain is great switching from jokester to lecher to intense badass, often within split seconds of each other. His sense of comic timing reminds me a lot of Lee Jun-ki, and I think he’s perfectly suited for the role. Personally, I don’t think he holds a candle to Lee Jung-jin with the latter’s rugged, intense quality, but maybe I just like my boys scruffy. I enjoy Yoon Jin-seo playing a sassy character who exasperates Do-woo, and I anticipate that her probable romance with him will make my day. And while I frankly don’t have a strong opinion of Lee Na-young in this role, she fits right in.
Episode 1 was a cheesefest–intentionally, but a cheesefest nonetheless. Thankfully, Episode 2 was better, but it’s still missing that spark…the heart, the soul, the ki. Ji-woo is likable because he isn’t Bond. He thinks he is, but he isn’t, which makes him interesting and a bit of an underdog, although the show is trying really hard to make him too cool for school. I hate too cool for school. Here’s hoping that he keeps being a bit of a bumbler; otherwise I’ll lose interest in a hero who makes no mistakes.
I like the cops, and enjoy their dynamic too, mostly because they’re also bumbling. But they’re funny, and I adore So-ran’s crush on Do-soo. The problem is, I wish they were the central characters, because I don’t really care about Jin-yi and her conflict yet. I get that they’re trying to make her mysterious, but then we have no emotional hook. The Henney isn’t helping matters either, because he’s frightfully wooden in the first two episodes, and while he should have helped round her out emotionally, he serves to further distance her from the audience.
I want to like Runaway, but I don’t…yet. I get what they’re going for, and I like the tone, and the action (in case you’re going to assume I hate action, I will confess to having half a bookcase full of cheesetastic blockbuster Hollywood action films). I’m just a firm believer in one thing: you need to hook me, in the first two hours (and the second hour is just being generous). I have to feel something real for your characters. I’ll just cite the first episodes of Alias and 24 as two examples of shows that manage to balance action and heart in the course of the first hour. I don’t care if it’s over-the-top, but I need that kind of narrative investment, if you want me to love you. See, if I were rewriting this sucker, I’d have Kevin start the show off, the two of them on the Las Vegas job, and then he dies. Onscreen. Tears, swearing of vengeance, anger, confusion, then fast-forward to years later. Because that? Would hook me.
Um… well… Even after all that, we’re both still ambivalent and are approaching with a cautious “Wait and see” approach. It could be fun to recap, but it could also end up turning into a chore. That means we will keep an eye on this week’s episodes, but we make no promises.