Sometimes patience does pay off, you guys.
After feeling pretty underwhelmed by Lee Jun Ki’s dramas in recent years – namely, 2014’s Joseon Gunman, 2015’s Scholar Who Walks The Night and 2016’s Moon Lovers – I was starting to seriously wonder if I would get to see Lee Jun Ki in a show that I truly enjoyed, ever again. (I didn’t check out 2017’s Criminal Minds, but I heard that I didn’t miss much.)
Now, I’m really pleased to report that I did enjoy his 2018 outing, Lawless Lawyer, and quite thoroughly too. This, when I’m not even usually that drawn to the action / legal genre. Not bad at all, I say.
STUFF THAT WORKED FOR ME
I’m beginning to suspect that I like action shows more than I’d like to admit. Each time I start to approach an action type show, I feel like I’m being dragged towards it against my will, almost, but most times, once I get into the story, I am suitably engaged and fully onboard for the thrills and spills that Show has to offer.
This time, I have my dear friend Michele to thank, for getting me to watch Lawless Lawyer. We’d decided to re-start our drama buddy arrangement and start watching dramas together again, after a break of about 4 years. After not watching dramas for a pretty long time, Michele decided that she really wanted her first foray back into dramaland to feature Lee Jun Ki, for whom she’s got a big soft spot. I’d heard good things about Lawless, and with Michele along for the ride, I found myself jumping into this action-legal show with more enthusiasm than I would ordinarily expect of myself – y’know, for an action-legal show. Not only that, I found to my happy surprise that there were actually quite a lot of things that I liked, in this one.
Yes, the overarching story in this one leans melodramatic and maybe even a little theatrical, but once I adjusted my viewing lens to accommodate that, I found that I had few things to complain about, during my watch. Here’s a quickish rundown of the stuff that worked for me, in this show.
General execution: Cinematography, pacing, action choreography, overall handling
From the get-go in episode 1, the cinematography seemed promising, with some gorgeous aerial shots, paired with the generally cool subdued blue hues. On top of that, Show packed its early episodes to the full, with tantalizing information fragments that were enough to make me feel invested yet curious to know more, as well as what felt like a whole lotta action.
The action sequences felt elaborately choreographed and complex, clearly the result of a lot of time, effort and finances. In fact, the action sequences were so substantial and complicated – and lengthy and expensive – that I wondered whether Show would be able to keep this up all the way through to the end, given that this drama wasn’t pre-produced.
Short answer: Show was smart about this.
Basically, Show saved its fancier action sequences and cinematic touches for the times that mattered most: its beginning and end. That’s when we got most of our elaborate car chases, fancy fight scenes and multi-way split screens. In between, the execution leans less shiny, while remaining solid and serviceable, allowing the characters and the plot to take centerstage. All in all, a strategy that worked pretty well, from where I was sitting.
Some action-centered kdramas get so caught up on serving up the action that they seem to forget to engage the heart (see my very limited first impressions of Bad Guys 2 – City of Evil). But not this show. I very much enjoyed how Lawless balanced all the action with a lot of emotional resonance; a fact that shouldn’t surprise me, considering that PD Kim Min Jin was also the PD behind 2007’s Time Between Dog and Wolf – which also starred Lee Jun Ki, and which was a show that I enjoyed very much, despite its more dated production values.
Lee Jun Ki as Bong Sang Pil
My thing with Lee Jun Ki – for whom I have a sizable soft spot – is that while I love his intensity and passion, I also feel like he can lean a little too theatrical at times. It’s like he pours so much of himself into the role that he forgets to hold back. Well. Not this time, my friends.
It makes me so, SO happy to report that even though this story leans theatrical at times, Lee Jun Ki’s delivery does not. Instead, his delivery of our lead character Sang Pil is peppered with moments of distinct restraint and subtlety, which, in my mind, is when Lee Jun Ki does his best work. Huzzah!
Often, we are treated to scenes where Sang Pil’s got all his years of angst bubbling under a layer of restraint, and it translates so well, onscreen. On the surface, Sang Pil is badass, cheeky and irrepressibly sassy, but the glimpses that we get, into the wounds, scars and angst beneath the sass, made him an intriguing character that I wanted to root for.
Plus, Lee Jun Ki is so very beautiful when he broods. <3
There are two specific things about Sang Pil that I wanted to talk about.
On the downside, some rationalizing definitely needs to be done, in order to be able to root for a rogue protagonist, who does things that a straight-up hero would not. One big example that comes to mind, is the fact that Sang Pil instructs his guys to trash Jae Yi’s dad’s (Seo Ye Ji and Lee Han Wi) photo studio in the beginning, to provide a way for him to demand that Jae Yi work with him, in lieu of her dad’s loan repayment. While this mini arc is treated in a pretty lighthearted manner, it is true that our leading man basically orders the damage, and to some extent, the destruction, of the studio – a place dear to both Jae Yi and her dad – along with their personal and professional belongings in it. Not the typical stuff of heroes, to be sure.
On the upside, Sang Pil does show himself to be a good person. In particular, I loved that Sang Pil is a character who has genuine compassion for people. In episode 4, he and his team are on the tail of the broker who was involved in arranging for the getaway of the hitman who killed the mayor. The team spots the broker stopping at a construction site to speak with an older woman, and it quickly dawns on the team that the woman is his mother. Sang Pil’s boys want to jump on the broker while he’s distracted, but Sang Pil stops them. I love that he gives the broker the dignity of not having to run, in front of his mother. Instead, Sang Pil waits until the broker has said goodbye to his mother, before giving chase. To me, that moment said so much, about Sang Pil as a person.
On a more fangirly note, Lee Jun Ki looks fantastic and very, very sharp, in this show. I concede he’s a lot leaner in this than I personally think he needs to be, but he’s obviously in fantastic shape.
It’s clear that Lee Jun Ki does all of his own fight scenes and stunts, and even though it must be extra tiring to film those, he just kills it, every time. He looks so lean and compact that I sometimes half expected him to have a.. milder screen presence during the action sequences, but he’s consistently explosive in the energy that he brings and the impact he creates, and I was suitably impressed.
Also, check out his eagle jump. Woah. And, wheee~!
Seo Ye Ji as Ha Jae Yi
In many kdramas, even a heroine who starts out with some spunk, tends to morph into a helpless damsel once she’s found her One True Love. SO not the case in this show, y’all.
I love that Jae Yi as a character stays consistently ballsy and passionate from beginning to end. [SPOILER] From the moment in episode 1, when she reached out and punched the slimy judge without hesitation, even though her job was on the line, I loved her. Just, so fiery and badass. And even after actually losing her job for punching out the judge, Jae Yi never demonstrates a moment of regret – which made me love her more. [END SPOILER]
I also love that Seo Ye Ji plays Jae Yi with what I feel is a pitch perfect mix of daring gumption and emotional vulnerability. In Seo Ye Ji’s hands, Jae Yi felt like a character who wasn’t just spunky coz the script called for it; instead, she felt like someone who chose to be brave even when a part of her was scared. That made her feel so much more relatable and real.
[SPOILER] Specifically, I appreciated how open-minded Jae Yi shows herself to be. She’s admired Judge Cha (Lee Hye Young) deeply ever since she was a child, and even has a close mother-daughter-esque relationship with the judge, but when, in episode 4, Sang Pil indicates that Judge Cha isn’t what she seems, Jae Yi doesn’t go crazy. Instead, she calmly asks for evidence – and she proves that she really is open to examining the evidence to find out the truth, even though the truth might undermine everything that she ever believed about Judge Cha. I found that an admirable trait indeed. [END SPOILER]
On a shallow note, I very much enjoyed Jae Yi’s styling through the entire show, and I especially loved the fact that she consistently wore sneakers with her pantsuits. That feels so down-to-earth and practical. It’s much easier to run after criminals – or run away from them – in sneakers than in stilettos, and I loved this little detail that made Jae Yi so much more functional in her world.
Sang Pil and Jae Yi as our OTP
It’s been a while since I’ve felt Lee Jun Ki had excellent chemistry with a female co-star, so I’m extra pleasantly surprised by the chemistry between him and Seo Ye Ji. The chemistry between them feels sparky, natural, comfortable, unforced and organic.
I love that they feel like equals onscreen. He’s not overshadowing her even though he is the more experienced actor, and it feels like they bring equal amounts of presence to my screen. As bickering adversaries, and then as partners in law, Sang Pil and Jae Yi feel equally matched, and as a couple, they feel equally attracted to each other, and I feel like the romantic connection between them feels believable and real.
One of my favorite things about this OTP, is that, generally speaking, these two seem to be able to ride all the various waves of moods, professional needs, and everything in-between, and just roll with it. [SPOILER] For example, the piggback-shoe-fumbling thing in episode 8 is very cute, and later, the late-night hug in the office after she shows up with her luggage, is sweet and tender. And then afterwards, the lame joke about the massage chair, that gets them giggling, is cute too. [END SPOILER] I really like that one minute, this couple is fighting side by side, and the next, they’re touchy-feely romantic, and the next moment, they’re giggling together like playful kids. Likey muchey.
A note on sexytimes
In episode 6, our OTP consummates their relationship, soon after Jae Yi realizes Sang Pil’s identity. Some viewers probably found this quite sudden and rushed, particularly in the general scheme of kdrama timelines, where sexytimes – if any – are always in the series’ later episodes.
However, given the context of this scene, and of Sang Pil and Jae Yi’s shared backstory, I actually found this fairly natural, all things considered. In the midst of grief, and in the context of their shared connection that is rooted in brokenness, sex can be a very life-affirming thing, and in this case, I feel like Sang Pil and Jae Yi were connecting as kindred spirits, and affirming life, in the midst of all the darkness and death that characterizes their context.
It did drive me a little crazy whenever Sang Pil did the noble idiot thing and refused to be honest with Jae Yi.
Twice in episode 8, Sang Pil brushes off Jae Yi’s questions by saying it’s nothing, when it’s obviously not nothing. That was frustrating to watch. I would’ve much preferred it if he’d said something like, “I can’t tell you right now.” That would’ve felt much more honest and transparent.
This evasiveness shows up again in Show’s later stretch, when Sang Pil withholds the truth from Jae Yi in the worst way, when her mother (Baek Joo Hee) requests that he leave Jae Yi. That was also frustrating to watch.
It bothered me that our OTP struggled so much to have honesty in their relationship, when they were awesome together in so many other ways.
Overall, though, I really enjoyed this OTP pairing, and I loved the little detail, that between them, it is Jae Yi who first formally acknowledges their relationship, “You’re my man.” YES. I love that she doesn’t demur from stating the fact, and owns it like the strong woman that she is.
I actually really liked that despite the romance brewing between Sang Pil and Jae Yi, they never let that romance become their entire world. They take it in their stride and keep on fighting the baddies together, and I love that through it all, in love and in war, they are partners – equally matched and equally invested.
Our 2 Big Bads
Ahn Oh Ju (Choi Min Soo) and Judge Cha (Lee Hye Young) are the two Big Bads in our drama world, and boy, are they glorious. Ahn Oh Ju is larger than life, like a mustache-twirling theatrical pirate, while Judge Cha is regal, elegant, and oh-so-disdainful of the little people. Together, they give us a wide spectrum of Big Bad to hate; the brash thug, and the evil genius.
I found them both terrible and fascinating in their own ways, and they made this ride all the more thrilling, with their presence.
Ahn Nae Sang as Uncle
Without giving too much away, let me just say that I loved Uncle, and found him such an unlikely, and yet, such a caring father figure to Sang Pil. Long live Uncle!!
The rag-tag office gang
It took some time for the law firm gangsters to grow on me, but grow on me they sure did. By series’ end, I actually felt sorry to say goodbye to these goofs. I liked that this motley crew always found a way to have a laugh, even in the most stressful of times. They brought some much-needed levity to a tension-filled narrative.
I found Kwang Soo (Kim Byung Hee) endearing for his undying loyalty to Sang Pil, but if I had to pick a favorite out of this ragtag bunch, it would have to be Geum Ja (Seo Ye Hwa).
[SPOILER] I love that the way Geum Ja talks to her brother (Lim Ki Hong) is all like she’s the noona who knows everything and nags him about everything, but she’s really the younger sister. I love too, that she’s not malicious. Even though she has a crush on Sang Pil, she good-naturedly supports Jae Yi and Sang Pil’s relationship, and even gives Jae Yi’s relationship advice, despite feeling a bit jealous as she does so. How delightful is she? I love her. [END SPOILER]
STUFF THAT WORKED LESS
Suspension of disbelief required in large servings
Ok, so the thing is, you need to suspend disbelief a whole lot, with this show.
In particular, all the lawyer-courtroom stuff would absolutely not be up to snuff in the real world. In a real court of law, so many of this drama’s details would be counted as conflict of interest, seriously. I’m not at all well-versed with the law myself, and even I can tell. [MINOR SPOILER] I mean, in no world (except this drama world) would it be acceptable for a judge presiding over a case, to sit down to a cup of tea with the defendant while court proceedings are still on-going, right? [END SPOILER]
My conclusion is, it’s absolutely necessary to be able to close both eyes to the legal ways of this drama world, in order to enjoy your watch.
At the same time, while I accepted that the law stuff required a whole lot of suspension of disbelief, there were other instances where I felt the writing came across as lazy &/or full of loopholes, and that did interfere with my ability to enjoy my watch. I do wish Show could’ve done better on that front.
Here’s a quick handful of some of those times.
E7. How did they get Wu Hyung Man (Lee Dae Yeon) a funeral under the circumstances, without an investigation? After all, his death was highly unnatural and very suspicious, and yet, we move straight to the funeral, without any fuss, and without an investigation? That felt weird. Also, why was there still stuff left in the abandoned car for our bad guys to examine, if Sang Pil and Jae Yi had already taken everything out for their investigation?
E10. There is no way anyone recovering from a stab wound, who still needs to be hospitalized, would be able to fight the way Sang Pil fights, with flying kicks and everything. The way he clutches his wound in the second half of the fight feels kind of like an afterthought. Also, where are the guards in this scenario? Sang Pil is in hospital as a suspect, so there would logically be guards nearby watching him.
E10. It also doesn’t make sense for Gwan Dong (Choi Dae Hoon) to act out like that in front of Ahn Oh Ju. That felt completely out of character, and the moment felt like it was shoved in there because writer-nim couldn’t think of another way to connect the story to the next dot, which is to have Mayor Ahn realize that Judge Cha is no longer on his side.
E11. I do find it hard to believe that no one seems to recognize Jae Yi’s mom. After coming face to face with her so many times, Jae Yi, who’s looked at her mother’s picture so often for so long, still doesn’t make the connection. And Sang Pil, who owes her his life, and has stared at her picture more than a little bit, can still respond with disbelief, when she admits that Jae Yi is her daughter? It was a really emotional scene where Lee Jun Ki did so very well, but that note of having to suspend disbelief definitely took away from my immersion in the moment.
E12. The shrimp allergy thing is a good angle, but executed with so many holes that it loses its punch. First of all, why would Jae Yi or her mum order shrimp fritters if both of them know she’s allergic to shrimp? And then, after Jae Yi’s got her throat constricted and looks like she’s in serious need of medical attention, how could that be just put on hold, while she talks to her mum on the phone in an emotional reunion? It doesn’t make sense. Also. Someone with allergies tends to carry antihistamines with them at all times. I’d have expected a smart woman like Jae Yi to be at least that much prepared.
THOUGHTS ON THE ENDING [SPOILERS]
In the end, Lawless Lawyer serves up a finale that is true to itself; suspension of disbelief is required in healthy servings, but, justice is served, and served with a bit of rogue relish to boot.
I was a little bit afraid that The Big Trial wouldn’t go as planned, and that our lawless lawyers’ painstaking preparation would be thrown askew by Judge Cha and her various conniving connections. But, the trial went quite swimmingly, at least in terms of entertainment value. I loved the bits where our two sides – namely, Judge Cha vs. the lawless lawyers – stubbornly went about their business while completely ignoring their opponents. Yes, it was more frustrating and nail-biting when Judge Cha did it, since she was presiding over the case (while the two other judges by her side did absolutely nothing except just sit there, huh), but man, when it was Sang Pil stubbornly ignoring her orders to move on from questioning the witness, I couldn’t help grinning with glee.
I loved it when Ahn Oh Ju made his swaggering pirate entrance and testified against Judge Cha, and I loved it too, when Jae Yi called her mother as the final witness. And then the best moment of all, when Prosecutor Cheon stood up amidst all the furore and basically derails Judge Cha’s attempt to recess the court with a formal request to amend the indictment and therefore stop the trial. Yes, that doesn’t sound like a lot on paper, but having the prosecution stand up to the judge and forcibly take control using the law, was quite thrilling to witness.
I felt a little bit sorry to see Ahn Oh Ju shoot himself in the head, but it felt apt for his character, to live and die on his own terms, rather than be shackled by the law. I didn’t feel sorry to see Judge Cha (or more accurately, ex-Judge Cha) get arrested along with all her lackeys, get sentenced to life in prison, and then get taunted by Madam Nam (Yum Hye Ran) while serving her time in jail.
In the end, I feel like Show leaves us on a solidly satisfying note. Justice is served, our baddies pay the price for their crimes, Jae Yi’s family is finally reunited, Sang Pil and Jae Yi get to keep on fighting crime together on a bigger stage in Seoul, along with now-promoted Prosecutor Cheon (Park Ho San), and our hodgepodge rowdy lawless office gang still gets to hang out and work together in Gisung, with Kwang Soo studying to be a lawyer. There are even hints of romance blooming between Kwang Soo and Geum Ja, which is an adorable loveline that I could totally get behind.
All in all, I hafta say, nicely done, Show. Nicely done.
THE FINAL VERDICT:
A rollicking fun ride that works out to be solidly satisfying, if you can switch off the ol’ brain a lil bit – well, sometimes a lot.
FINAL GRADE: B+