Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and GeeksHaveGame.
Dull and Forgetful Yet Watchable
Set in 1995 in Korea, The Prison follows former police lieutenant Song Yu-gon (Kim Rae-won) as he suddenly finds himself in a prison full of criminals that he’s responsible for incarcerating. Beaten until he’s bloody and bruised by both guards and inmates, Yu-gon discovers an A-class criminal known as Jung Ik-ho (Han Seok-kyu, The Berlin File) who somehow has a status that even the warden can’t touch.
Feeling entitled and wanting more out of his new living arrangements, Yu-gon joins Ik-ho’s prison syndicate and gets brief tastes of freedom as Ik-ho’s men execute heists on the outside and solve problems the warden may have to keep a steady stream of money going into the pockets on both sides. But a deal this sweet has to turn sour eventually as a crooked criminal system teeters on the verge of collapsing on itself and second-rate prison gangs are foaming at the mouth to take Ik-ho’s spot.
Written and directed by Na Hyun, The Prison is a crime film that isn’t bold enough to take risks and is perfectly content with staying within the lines of mediocrity. Within the first 15 minutes, Yu-gon is urinated on and drenches his pants with his own urine later within the same time frame. It’s an odd thing to notice, but it’s honestly the only trait worth remembering for the first half of the film. Screen time is mostly devoted to the dynamic between Ik-ho and Yu-gon; how loyal Yu-gon becomes to Ik-ho and how far Ik-ho has risen as a self-risen king behind bars.
But the performances are mostly subdued until the final encounter. Ik-ho’s eyeball eating reputation becomes a staple for the character as Yu-gon’s obnoxious sense of entitlement and rotten attitude make it difficult to fully endorse the character. While a purpose for all of this is explained later, it feels as if the reasoning behind everything is either revealed too soon or isn’t explored to the fullest at the time of the reveal. You feel no attachment to either character since there’s essentially very little difference between the two.
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What’s disappointing is how bland The Prison is once the spotlight shines on Yu-gon’s true motives. It’s a concept that is too familiar and seems to borrow from every film with a cop being thrown in jail premise. Looking past the main story and the acting, the film lacks a thrilling or even memorable action sequence. Sequences are either short lived or don’t feel violent enough for a prison encounter. Meanwhile, the viewer is put through awkward subplots involving a rival gang that Yu-gon has rubbed the wrong way, Yu-gon complaining about wanting different living arrangements, Yu-gon having the unhealthy desire to be put in solitary confinement, and the importance of fried chicken and yellowtail sushi in a prison environment.
It seems like so much more could have been done regarding the performances of Kim Rae-won and Han Seok-kyu. Both Yu-gon and Ik-ho are characters who are suffering for different reasons; Yu-gon should be much more emotional regarding why he is where he is and Ik-ho has typical Scarface syndrome as a criminal overlord who has become as big as he’s ever going to get. There’s nowhere else for Ik-ho to go. Instead of exploring those concepts and the actors portraying how it would affect them emotionally, they mostly just feel like they’re going through the motions with withdrawn reactions as they mutter lines of dialogue with little to no impact.
The Prison tries to be this awkward blend of concepts found within films like Donnie Brasco, The Recruit, Face/Off, Death Warrant, and Sylvester Stallone’s Lock Up but fails to capitalize on any of the things that may have made those films memorable. The acting is incapable of exploring anything that isn’t already depicted at surface level and the dialogue is almost as lifeless as the lethargic action sequences.
Nevertheless, The Prison is a basic concept with a simple execution that keeps the film from being a complete waste of time. Its biggest flaw is that exploring unfamiliar territory pertaining to the concept seems within the film's grasp, but instead it relies on predictability. Na Hyun’s crime drama feels lazy because it took an easy plea bargain rather than taking the initiative to push for a better deal.
Dora Weithers from The Caribbean on April 02, 2017:
Chris, I appreciate the review. Seems like a familiar plot alright, but it may still be an enjoyable film by someone who has a little tolerance for shorter, milder actions.