Film Review: New World

Death of a crimelord leads to gang war, egged on by corrupt cops. Ambitious Korean thriller draws from many gangster flicks.

Reverse-engineered from several gangster classics, New World is like the knockoff shades and counterfeit wristwatches its antihero complains about: flashy but ultimately cheap. Broad in scope and with an appealing cast, the film details a crime war marked by informants, corrupt cops, and a pointlessly convoluted plot that leads to the most obvious conclusions possible. Genre fans will be let down by New World's uninspired storyline and lack of action.

Take the tone and premise of Johnnie To's Election films, add in characters and at times entire scenes from Andrew Lau's Infernal Affairs trilogy, wrap them up in Godfather excess, and you have the basic template for New World. Three Korean gangs have assembled under the Goldmoon Corporation umbrella. When its chairman is killed, gang leaders scramble to replace him.

Frontrunners are the icy Lee Joong-gu (Park Sung-woong) and the flamboyant Jung Chung (Hwang Jung-min). Ja-sung (Lee Jung-jae), Jung's second-in-command, is actually an undercover cop reporting to Kang Hyung-Chul (Choi Min-sik), an unscrupulous manipulator trying to take control of the upcoming gangland election.

After many years undercover, Ja-sung wants out, but Kang forces his operative into "Operation New World." Kang strikes a secret deal with Jung as well, placing Ja-sung in jeopardy and causing the death of his police contact Sin-woo (Song Ji-hyo). In an additional twist, Kang orders Ja-sung to support dark horse Jang Su-ki (Choi Il-Hwa) for head of the gangs.

Will Ja-sung betray his close friend Jung? Will roving assassins get to his pregnant girlfriend? Will Jung learn that his buddy is a cop? The answers aren't as interesting as writer-director Park Hoon-jung hopes, no matter how many better works he cites.

New World has some of the moves of the films it borrows from. Gangsters preen in fitted suits, splurge in restaurants, throw elaborate funerals. Grungy cops suffer through stakeouts, meet snitches in crypts, ponder their alienation over cigarettes and liquor.

What's missing? To's black humor and exceptional grasp of gangland life, Lau's clockwork precision, Coppola's overwhelming emotions. Individual scenes in New World are sometimes striking, but on the whole the film doesn't make much sense. Real-life crooks can't be this simple or they'd all be dead.

Lee's Ja-sung character knows how to suffer silently, but his part grows tedious over time. Choi, best known for his eating-a-live-octopus turn in Oldboy, adds some grizzled texture to his cop, but the role makes few demands on the actor. The most entertaining work comes from Hwang, who throws himself into his tasteless, garish, endearing crook.

There's nothing wrong with reworking films like Election and Infernal Affairs. Scorsese won an Oscar for The Departed, his version of the latter. Sadly, Park doesn't bring anything new to the genre, apart from a lot more crane shots and one too many stoic grimaces.