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Jail Breakers

ADV Films // Unrated // July 19, 2005
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Bill Gibron | posted July 21, 2005 | E-mail the Author
They often call laughter the "international" language. But as fans of foreign films can tell you, one man's Tati is another man's torment. Certain types of rib tickles are indeed universal - the fart joke, the perfect pratfall. When trying to get the essence or nuance of your national wit across however, as well as have it translate across all borders and boundaries, you are looking at a next to impossible task. All countries have their own cultural concerns, ideas that are traditionally far too taboo or sacred to tackle. Chauvinism may seem hilarious in a heavily paternalistic society, but more open-minded countries may balk at the Neanderthal nature of such sentiments. Conversely, the grandiose gross-out enjoyed by more liberal locales could throw certain conservative areas into a tasteless tizzy. So it's safe to say that humor is the Esperanto of entertainment. Some may get it, but most prefer their local language of lunacy.

Such is the case with Jail Breakers. Regarded as the top Korean comedy of all time, made by one of its preeminent directors of delirium, it has a pedigree in place for the making of something truly special. But in a clear case of nationalistic specialization, this action/adventure anarchy's concepts fail to successfully translate. What is supposed to be comical ends up crass, lost in a bedlam of bad characterization, inconsistent tone and a serious lack of jokes. There are elements of this film that may deliver delights to audiences in tune with its tendencies, but anyone unfamiliar with Asian comedy, or the stylized silliness of this particular filmmaker, will be scratching their head in puzzled disbelief.

The DVD:
Moo-suk has been in prison for six years, and during that time, he's had just one dream - to escape! After numerous attempts failed, Moo-suk found the perfect item to fulfill his dreams - a common household spoon. For the last five years, he's been digging a tunnel out of jail and the time has come to leave. Crazy cellmate Jae-pil agrees. A small time swindler, he has just learned that his girlfriend is getting married. So he wants out as quickly as possible. The pair proceeds with the plan, and soon enough, they are "free" men. It is only then that they learn a startling fact - they both were eligible for amnesty, and the government has decided to grant their pardon as part of the Independence Day celebration. Only problem is, if they've escaped, the reprieve will be voided. So now our two intrepid inmates have to find a way to break BACK into jail - and if they can prevent Jae-pil's girl from getting married along the way, that would be fine as well.

Talk about your exhausting cinematic experiences. At a little less than two hours, Jail Breakers is about 30 minutes too long. It is a film overloaded with subplots, ancillary characters and frequent flashbacks. So bloated and bombastic is this hit Korean comedy that it feels akin to The Blues Brothers in action attributes and overreaching ambition. Now, this is not the classic 1980 comedy from the savvy SNL'ers that two decades of revisionist history has provided us with. No, this is the Belushi/Aykroyd near-bomb that critics more or less cremated upon its release a quarter of a century ago. Back when Jake and Elwood wrecked every vehicle in upstate Illinois, audiences complained that the movie was one long chase scene, peppered with moments of retrograde blues music. The concept of comedy was a distant third on the meter of amusement importance.

Jail Breakers is crafted from a similar scope. It is a humoresque from the screaming meamie school of comedy. One look at the cover art confirms this. It depicts our leads, mouths agape, faces fixed in Munch-like screeches. Somehow, director Sang-Jin Kim's got the idea that laughs are best realized when everyone is shrieking blue murder at each other - "blue" being the operative word. There is a plethora of cursing in this otherwise silly slapstick, with characters relying on "bitch", "shit" and other more colorful euphemisms to express exaggerated emotion. And when they're not swearing, they're shouting, unfunny lines of dialogue driven like long, laser-like nails deep into your midbrain. At the 90 minute point, when we've been treated to several one-dimensional characters caterwauling at each other like hyperactive howler monkeys, we are about to give up. No matter what happens in the last half hour, Jail Breakers can't make up for all the noise pollution we've had to endure.

Yet oddly enough, once the movie moves out of 'yell and holler' hilarity and taps back into the mechanics of narrative - breaking back into jail - it actually picks up speed. Toward the end, when we are wondering what will happen during the riot, as well as whether our heroes will ever get back INTO the prison, our interest is genuinely peaked. Whether it's by magic, or some manner of cinematic torture, Sang-Jin Kim has found a way to keep us rooting for these retards. Maybe all the voluminous verbal volleys found a way to get us to actually care about our lead characters. Or perhaps there is a different dynamic at work. We may not be rooting for our so-called heroes as much as rooting against the lame-ass heavy that has taken over the hoosegow. This spoiled brat of a bad guy, a "crazy" inmate with a demented death wish and a permanent scowl across his face, appears to hold some power over the penitentiary population. So when he gets them to rebel for reasons that are never very clear, we want someone to kick his sorry scrotum once and for all. And without a lot of available options, Moo-suk and Jae-pil are it.

Not that we're really convinced of their capabilities. Part of the problem with Jail Breakers is the lack of definable characters. This is a film that uses props and circumstances as personality traits. Moo-suk is a bread-loving spoon fanatic. We never learn why he chose a life of crime, or why he feels the desperate need to escape so often. Jae-pil is even more of a cipher, a horribly abusive bum who seems incapable of doing anything - legal or illegal - except gnash his teeth and bray like a hyena. As the movie moves into its plotting, the one-dimensional denizens keep on coming - the aforementioned bad guy, the rational prison guard, the out of touch warden, the corrupt government officials. About the only somewhat fleshed out figure in the whole film is Jae-pil's gal pal. She's given a couple of flashbacks (this is a film FILLED with said narrative rewinds) to show how she came to love her criminal cad, and how her head was easily turned toward her current fiancé - a cop. Had Sang-Jin Kim kept up this tactic, allowing us insights into his individuals' motivation and meaning, we may have found more humor in their ranting. But as basic vocal voids, it is hard to get behind their dilemmas.

Another problem with Jail Breakers is it's pacing. As a filmmaker, Sang-Jin Kim has a good eye for composition and framing. His movie looks like a spectacle, and has a nice cinematic soundness to its vision. But he lets scenes run on long past their potential, and cuts others just as they're getting started. He introduces interesting elements (the criminal "hound dog" sent out to track the escapees) that never pay off, and he loses the logistics of almost every action sequence. Fights are like free-for-alls, not carefully choreographed stunt pieces, and car chases are non-linear, illogical farces. Sang-Jin Kim is not beyond stopping a scene in mid-rationale to offer up some tedious tangential facet. He will introduce a concept - the karaoke song that is crucial to Jae-pil and his ladylove's relationship - and yet never really explain why it matters. Certainly some of the intent can be inferred from the interaction between individuals, but more times than not, the director leaves us hanging.

Had Jail Breakers streamlined its mannerisms, spent more time developing its personalities and less time asking its actors to froth and foam at the mouth, we could have had a big, broad slapstick sensation. Instead, we are saddled with a film that wears out its welcome, wears out the audiences, and wears on the nerves. Perhaps fans more familiar with Korean or Asian comedy will click into its out-sized objectives more readily, and realize the fun and frolic Sang-Jin Kim was aiming for. But just like the American who finds nothing remotely witty about the dry and drawn out British comedy of manners, Western minds will probably just melt inside Jail Breakers' Eastern exasperation. With some narrative clarity, attention to detail, and a cutting room overhaul, a decent comedy could be salvaged from this overstuffed offering. As it stands, director Sang-Jin Kim didn't know when to stop, and as a result, his film feels like a runaway locomotive. Though the crash may seem spectacular, there is nothing really funny about a train wreck.

The Video:
ADV releases Jail Breakers in a 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen image that's clean and crisp. As with any foreign film, the technology can't match American mainstream moviemaking, but this is still a good-looking print nonetheless. On the downside, director Sang-Jin Kim has a couple of visual tricks that will have you convinced that your DVD player is ready to give up the ghost. During several of the flashbacks, the motion of the actors is made to stutter and stammer, as if something is wrong with the footage. The herky-jerky feel meshed with the somewhat faded look to the colors and contrasts help make this a less than first class presentation. As it stands however, Jail Breakers offers a decent digital display.

The Audio:
On the sonic side, ADV offers Jail Breakers in both the original Korean (with some occasionally confusing subtitles) and a fairly decent English dub. The Dolby Digital 2.0 used for the native language is very flat and thin. The dialogue is upfront and overpowering, with the rest of the aural attributes playing a very basic backup. At least in the Dolby Digital 5.1 voice-over, there is an attempt to manipulate all the channels. And if it's possible, the English version adds even MORE swearing to the dialogue. The mix is not always successful, but it is more full-bodied than the original elements.

The Extras:
Sadly, all we are treated to in the way of added content is a series of trailers. Other region releases of Jail Breakers have two disc versions complete with commentary, making-of material, bonus CDs with music from the film, and any other bell or whistle you can imagine. Why ADV choose to avoid any or all of these features is puzzling. Unless you are a fan of Sang-Jin Kim, you'll want more bang for your limited foreign film buck. Jail Breakers offers nothing to satisfy said consumer qualms.

Final Thoughts:
It is possible that this review is too hard on Jail Breakers. After all, other critics have instantly warmed to this novelty, disagreeing with almost every aspect of the analysis here. For them, Sang-Jin Kim is a genius, someone who has successfully translated his particular brand of smash-up comedy into a certified label for lunacy. In their mind, the characters are fresh, the film is fun, and the overall chaotic atmosphere matches well with a Western motion picture penchant. This, however, only proves the point of the opening discussion. One man's Keaton is another man's cretin, and there's no convincing them otherwise. Comedy is too personal a proclivity to tag it with a worldwide sense of appeal. Some people are going to "get it" - others will not. This does not mean Jail Breakers is junk. Indeed, there are some very minor aspects of this production that warrant a slight recommendation (more along the lines of a rental, actually). This is not a classic comedy that easily transcends its regional realities. Jail Breakers is an acquired taste, one that American audiences may have a hard time swallowing.

Want more Gibron Goodness? Come to Bill's TINSEL TORN REBORN Blog (Updated Frequently) and Enjoy! Click Here

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