On paper, it sounds like a recipe for a formulaic crime caper. One lawmaker who has always followed the rules and played everything by the book is forced by circumstance to team up with a maverick who will happily ignore standard procedure if it means getting results. It’s no surprise that, over the course of the drama, the goody-two-shoes former prosecutor gains a new perspective on the process of obtaining justice – and it’s similarly unsurprising that nothing in Yaksha: Ruthless Operations innovates a well-worn narrative formula, even if it relocates it from the cop genre to that of the spy movie.
Which isn’t to say there isn’t fun to be had with writer/director Na Hyeon’s espionage procedural, as it frequently makes up for the lack of surprises with an abundance of surface-level thrills. Who cares if the endless double crosses never generate a modicum of suspense when the film’s many action sequences, right from the botched car chase in the opening sequence, manage to deliver the excitement so lacking from the story itself? But these set pieces only count for so much when the central crime drama unravels in exactly the way you expect. For a film that follows several characters who bend the law if it means achieving their goals, it’s a little dissatisfying the extent to which the film plays things by the book.
Han Ji-hoon (Park Hae-soo) is a former prosecutor, publicly humiliated by his failure to take down a business involved in a major corruption case. As his face is splashed over the headlines, he gets demoted, becoming a legal advisor for the National Intelligence Service (NIS), where he very quickly spots an opportunity that could help restore his reputation. After his superior rejects it, he is sent to the Chinese city of Shenyang to work with the NIS black ops team, who monitor North Korean intelligence from offices hidden inside a travel agency.
Almost immediately, Han is in over his head; his belief in following the law at all times even disrupts one operation, to the dissatisfaction of his new superior, Ji Kang-in (Sol Kyung-gu), who will stop at nothing to complete each mission. The team’s main mission is to combat a major corruption case north of the border, extracting a North Korean official who is moving South, but multiple parties all spying on each other in the city (where Chinese and Japanese intelligence are also conducting operations) makes this near impossible. With so much intel changing hands between different organisations, double-crosses aren’t far behind – and a simple mission suddenly becomes a lot more complicated.
Although there is a regional twist to the espionage procedural that might help it maintain freshness for some western viewers (a North v South Korea dispute rather than, say, the US versus any number of former Cold War adversaries), there’s little other than geography that helps distinguish Yaksha: Ruthless Operations within an already well-trodden genre. The aforementioned action sequences do make it sporadically enjoyable, of course – but even those bursts of adrenaline come with the caveat that they’re all moving forward a plot that never wrong-foots the audience the way it does the characters.
It does fit comfortably into some cliches more than others. Take Park’s lead performance as Han; best known to international audiences as another in-over-his-head figure who waves goodbye to conventional morality (Cho Sang-woo in Netflix’s Squid Game), he’s an ideal fit to play another character whose perceived redemption arc is quickly turning sour before his own eyes. Similarly, Sol Kyung-gu is best known to Korean audiences as the loose canon cop in the Public Enemy trilogy. As far as casting goes, it’s notably uninspired on both accounts. However, it does mean they know how to elevate the material they’re working with, even if it is a notably lesser work than the last time they embodied these character archetypes.
Yaksha: Ruthless Operations does offer some action movie thrills – but nothing around its well-executed set-pieces does enough to keep you on the edge of your seat.
Written by Alistair Ryder