A team of five narcotics detectives under the leadership of Captain Ko does not have a stellar track record of success. Their clumsy attempt to apprehend a small group of criminals at the beginning of the film is so misjudged, it goes viral. Their superior has about reached the end of his patience, but one last opportunity to rescue their dignity presents itself. They are given a tip about the new Korean headquarters of a notorious international drug gang. Realizing that it’s going to take some time to gather incriminating evidence, they settle in for a long-term, 24-hour stakeout. But it’s hard to find a discreet place where they won’t attract attention. After being accused by a local resident of being peeping toms, they decide to gather in a run-down fried chicken restaurant that almost never has any customers.
The restaurant proves to be the perfect place to keep an eye on who’s going in and out of the gang’s hideout across the street. But after a couple days they find out the restaurant is for up for sale, and the owner is moving out. Desperate to maintain their vantage point, they come up with a wild idea. They’ll buy out the owner themselves, and do the basic minimum to maintain the business. Their biggest hope is that the gang across the street will order some chicken, so that when they deliver, they’ll have a once-in-a-lifetime look inside the gang’s headquarters.
Ironically, it is the hidden cooking talents of Detective Ma that end up causing complications. Forced to cook up something on the fly when a rare customer walks in, Ma creates an odd fried chicken fusion dish that is unexpectedly delicious. When the customer starts raving about it online, more customers come, and more, until suddenly they are overwhelmed by their own popularity.
High-concept comedies used to be a huge part of the Korean film industry. In the early 2000s, movies like My Wife Is a Gangster, My Sassy Girl, Hi Dharma and others were wildly popular with audiences, despite a somewhat condescending attitude from critics. But as time went on, the industry began to focus more on thrillers, costume dramas, action movies and works based on real historical events. Eventually, a sort of industry consensus emerged that high concept comedies were mostly a thing of the past.
But audiences themselves never lost interest, and there have been some indications in the past few years that pent-up demand for a good comedy was rising. With Extreme Job, that suppressed energy burst forth like a volcano. Released in January 2019, it was not merely a blockbuster hit. The film sold an astounding 16.3 million tickets in a country of 50 million people. In terms of admissions, it’s the second-highest grossing release in Korean film history (after the 2014 release Roaring Currents, with 17.6 million), and in terms of revenue it set a new record with the equivalent of $123 million.
The out-of-control success of this film had a lot of people asking, “Is it really that good?” It’s true that director Lee Byoung-heon has a good feel for comedy, and a talent for writing dialogue. Extreme Job is both entertaining and exciting, with a satisfying ending. Its cast is charismatic and talented. But at this point, few people would include it among the best Korean comedies of all time. It enjoyed something of a perfect storm at the box office, but viewers are advised not to let expectations soar too high.