Film Review: The Prison

Disgraced cop uncovers a criminal gang in a corrupt prison. Far-fetched thriller from Korea plows familiar ground.
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Grisly and interminable, The Prison recycles dull "big house" clichés in a Korean setting. The directing debut for longtime screenwriter Na Hyun, the movie pits a disgraced cop against a ganglord who controls a criminal empire from within a corrupt prison. Bursting with testosterone, The Prison is more about loyalty and saving face than delivering a believable plot.

When new convict Song Yu-Gon (Kim Rae-Won) arrives at Sung-An Prison, he immediately picks a fight with taunting inmates. Thrown in solitary, he learns from a guard that the prison is actually run by Jung Ik-ho (Han Suk-Kyu), a crook so powerful he even controls the warden.

Once a cop nicknamed the "Grim Reaper" for his brutal tenacity, Song ingratiates himself into Ik's gang. Soon he is helping with robberies conducted outside the prison. And as an orderly, he searches the warden's office until he finds evidence that could expose the corrupt prison system.

It turns out Song's brother, a journalist, was murdered for investigating the same story. Song has gone undercover to complete his brother's work. But as his crimes mount, will he lose his moral compass? More important, will he be able to face down Ik, known for eating his opponents' eyeballs?

Shot in a sickly, institutional green palette, The Prison operates on a very slow fuse. The script rolls out scene after scene in which tough guys posture and then beat each other, but the movie rarely feels tense and often makes no sense. Even TV's "Prison Break" has more credibility.

When Song and Ik finally face off — with guns, knives, crowbars, bottles, and concrete — The Prison escalates into a full-blown tainted bromance of the kind that curdled recent Korean thrillers like The King. They love each other, they hate other, they smash each other with regret, curses on their lips, tears in their eyes.

Veteran actor Han Suk-Kyu is soft-spoken and menacing as Ik. Relative newcomer Kim Rae-Won is better playing arrogant than soulful, but can't master a role so unrealistic. But bad acting is the least of The Prison's problems. In interviews, Na Hyun claimed to have written the script The Prison in two weeks. The movie's lazy, episodic plotting, topped by a truly bummer ending, proves the error of such haste.

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