Talented filmmakers can turn any situation or scenario into an entertaining and suspenseful ride — you need look no further than 2017’s brilliant Bad Genius, a movie about teenage test cheaters, to know that it’s true — but what if the subject matter is also extremely bleak and depressing? Last year’s Netflix hit Squid Game answers that question well enough, and now another South Korean effort is here with its eyes on a similar prize. On the Line explores the world of phishing scams and the destitute families they leave behind, and it does it with fierce action beats, aggressive momentum, and a far too abrupt ending.
Han Seo-joon (Byun Yo-han) is an ex-cop who now works hard as a construction supervisor, but one bad day on the job sends his whole life spinning. A concentrated scam effort targeting both the company boss and Seo-joon’s wife has left the pension fund empty and the couple’s savings obliterated. The police are of no help as they’re trying to build a case against the crooks higher up the food chain, but Seo-joon isn’t about to wait for justice — he wants it now. Using old skills and informants, he moves quickly to infiltrate the phishing organization and try to take it down from the inside.
If phone calls, cruel lies, and ATM runs seem an unlikely combination for an action/thriller, well, it is, but On the Line takes these ingredients and delivers an equally unlikely piece of genre entertainment. Beatdowns, chases, knife fights, and more keep the adrenaline pumping even as the film offers up a detailed look at the intricate steps, morally vacant players, and sad outcomes of such increasingly prevalent schemes.
The threat of being made penniless, alongside the fear of being unable to support yourself and your loved ones, are the key motivators in On the Line. Both director Kim Gok and writer Bae Young-ik set the stage for the action to come but don’t neglect that emotional angle. Opening text reveals the scope of such scams, and while most viewers will scoff at the idea that they’d ever fall victim, the film does great work detailing just how easy it is to become a victim. The crooks disable cell service to Seo-joon’s workplace and then hit his wife with a barrage of calls from different people and offices — police, lawyers, co-workers — all of whom are phony. She has to act quick, and she only realizes too late that she’s been had. It’s a grueling but effectively stressful sequence, and just like that, they’re broke.
On the Line is no Afterschool Special, though, as instead it’s got its eye on action, suspense, and some cathartic beatdowns. Seo-joon has had issues in the past with his temper, and jumping into a nest of vipers is guaranteed to give those urges a workout. We get more than a few fights as a result including a very cool run ‘n’ punch that sees our hero chased into an elevator shaft resulting in guys climbing, falling, and fighting the whole time. It’s a fantastic set-piece, and like the rest of the film’s action it’s crafted and captured with both clarity and excitement.
The den of villainy is filled with low-level baddies who’ll turn on each other for a buck, vicious brutes giddy at the thought of inflicting violence, and a local boss named Mr. Kwak (Kim Mu-yeol). Kwak is as eccentric as he is untrustworthy, and Kim’s performance brings a welcome dose of over the top color and charisma to a room full of otherwise grim characters. Byun’s protagonist is one such character, and he moves through the bulk of On the Line with such steeled determination that he’s given little time to breath and show viewers more range. Kwak overshadows him somewhat on the personality scale as a result, but the sides are evened up a bit by the presence of a younger female hacker (Lee Joo-young) who Seo-joon pulls into the caper. She’s exactly the right level of competent and sassy sidekick.
The only real stumble here is an ending that takes its foot off the gas weirdly early leaving full catharsis, satisfaction, and thrills unavailable. Instead of ending on a high, On the Line offers up a few additional scenes better left assumed while neglecting to show viewers what we really want to see. It’s an odd choice ending things with five minutes of deflated energy, but while a misstep it’s not a big enough one to tank the film. The final moments may be a meh, but the movie proper is a thrilling and informative look at some very real criminal acts that could very easily hit close to home for all of us.
Related Topics: Fantasia Film Festival