The Big Swindle certainly owes a lot to The Usual Suspects. I am not the first reviewer to recognise that and it is pretty darn obvious — there is a team of dangerous men, hints that not all is as it seems and much of the plot is revealed by its participants in flashbacks. And there is a real Keyser Soze moment around half-way through. Nuff said.
But the film also owes a good deal to the great heist films of the ‘60s and early ‘70s, such as The Thomas Crown Affair, from which it liberally borrows such devices as split screens and multiple character viewpoints.
In other words, what we have here is a film that is potentially either daftly derivative or a sustained homage to Western crime caper flicks. This is not to say that it is not enjoyable. In fact, dear reader, I am saying it is.
The film commences immediately after a bank robbery. In a typically bang-‘em-up car chase, one of the robbers, Chang-hyuk, is chased through the streets by police. After crashing through construction works on the outside of a tunnel, he emerges dazed from the other end and careers off the road to his death. Nice plunge, nice explosion. All very spectacular.
In the mayhem following the robbery the police capture one of the four remaining thieves, the oddball Olmae (Lee Moon-sik). The police grill him as he lies swathed in bandages in his hospital bed. It is through his recollections that we are given the first look into the murky and tricky past behind the heist.
As more characters are introduced, including Chang-hyuk’s shy bookworm brother Chang-ho, more of the past is revealed. The revelations that follow are not only useful to the police and the audience, but also to master con man Mr. Kim, who begins to suspect that he might have been well and truly had. Throw into the mix his former mistress and the lover of Chang-hyuk, In-Kyung, who takes a shine to Chang-ho for possibly nefarious purposes, and we have a nicely explosive mix.
The film’s Big Reveal is pretty darn obvious early on but there still remain several more twists in the latter half. Many of these, however, are given short shrift in the explanation department. Sure, this wasn’t helped for me by a ‘When Good Subtitles Go Bad’ moment which occurred right throughout the portion of the film that was the most tricky to follow, but there was a whiff of more twists for twists’ sake in the film’s latter stages. For the record, I reckon I know who the woman was who made the phone calls and I think I get the whole ‘land deal’ thing at the end but the explanations seemed a little hurried. This film certainly bears a second viewing. Just so I can sleep at night.
Like any good heist film The Big Swindle plays fast and loose with comedy, although it errs on the side of slapstick a little too often. Nonetheless, first time director Dong-hun Choi has made a pretty darn slick movie here. The framing is precise, the colour and lighting crisp, the editing pushes the pace along just so. It looks like a big budget movie and probably wasn’t. The music takes its cue from Western heist films too — that noir-ish jazz feel that permeates flicks like Oceans Eleven. It is a credit to the film that this striving for everything that signifies cool is, on the whole, quite successful, even when the rip-offs are wholesale (check out the slow-mo Reservoir Dogs walking sequence).
This is also due to the quality of the performances which are very sweet, thank you very much. Shin-yam Park does very well indeed with all he has (ooooh, I am soooo tempted), and Yun-shik Baek plays Mr. Kim with a terrific mix of charm, confidence and woozy nuttiness a la Choi Min-shik in Old Boy.
All of this derivation may mean that at no stage does The Big Swindle ever really kick off into surprising directions, but it is a nice ride and real purdy to look at.