Judge Adam Arseneau is a riddle wrapped in an enigma wrapped in a vest.
Solving this crime could be deadly.
I can sum up Puzzle in a single, simple sentence that will tell you absolutely everything you need to know about it. Ready? Puzzle is the Korean cross-breed of The Usual Suspects and Reservoir Dogs. See? Nice and easy. You can stop reading the review now if you so choose.
Facts of the Case
Five criminals meet unexpectedly in an office building, having all been invited by a mysterious organizer to plan a heist. No one knows anyone else, but all have been lured by the promise of an easy job. Four of the men rob a bank of valuable bonds and head to an abandoned warehouse to meet up with their fifth man, who will convert the bonds into cash…but when they arrive, they find his mutilated and burned corpse alone in the building.
Brooding Ryu, hot-headed Noh, enigmatic Jung, and youthful Kyu are distressed at the condition of their co-conspirator, at a loss at what to do next. With a briefcase of stolen bonds and nobody to exchange them with, the four are proverbially stuck, agreeing to disagree on what their next plan of action should be. They decide to wait for the mysterious ringmaster to make an appearance, but as time passes, paranoia and doubt run rampant.
What's that? You're looking for a bit more information? Did you read the "Opening Statement" section? You should probably go read it again. Honestly, that's all you need…no…that's…ugh. Fine, have it your way. I'll "elaborate."
Puzzle is the spitting image of its dichotomist American cinematic counterparts, except the dialogue is, you know, in Korean. The plot is virtually identical to Suspects with some Dogs tossed in for good measure: random thieves gather together summoned by a mysterious benefactor, who tips them onto the job opportunity of a lifetime. They do not know each other, trust each other, or particularly like each other, but the sweet, sweet lure of an easy payday is impossible to resist…right up to the point when they all start dropping dead. It's a whodunit told in flashback, sans Kevin Spacey and Harvey Keitel. As the plan rapidly discombobulates, paranoia, violence, and all manner of twisty things set in to torment the hapless thieves—but, boy howdy, some of the compositions and shots are seriously copied scene-for-scene, like infringing on copyrights. Believe it.
Outside of this embarrassing familiarity, there is little of worth that jumps out of Puzzle. The film is strongly adequate, straight through to the final reel, with nothing of any notable originality or variance to force a purchase or rental from a North American audience. All four thugs dress like Steven Seagal, but have physical characteristics and one-dimensional traits to make them easy to identify: the bald headed guy yells at spiky-hair and Mr. Sunglasses! And so on. As the film progresses, we get the back story behind them and what events necessitate the taking of the mysterious job. Again, nothing to write home about—these are sketches of thugs, nothing more. They have good motivations and bad, good pathos and bad, but it all screams middle-of-the-road action cinema with clichés heavily lifted—stolen, really—from the two aforementioned films mentioned earlier in the review. Would it surprise you to learn that one of the thugs (gasp!) used to be a cop? How very Mr. Orange of him! They even have a scene where the gangsters are arguing over what fake names to use for the job—how quaint! Wait until the ending. I assure you, nobody ends up tied to a chair in a warehouse. Quentin would be proud.
To the film's favor, Puzzle is a slow-burning ember of a mystery that slowly builds itself up to being something that resembles interesting. It starts off embarrassingly formulaic and dull, but like a smoldering cigarette, warms up to the subject at hand. By the halfway point, viewers will be genuinely interested in Puzzle if for no other reason than sheer curiosity. The plot never really lights on fire, but it smokes nicely, especially towards the end. There are some nice moments of stylish composition, of heavily shadowed framing, long takes, and handheld tracking of note. Though it barely has an original idea in its body, it tells its tale well enough: a tale of gangsters who want money and end up killing everyone in sight for it. It's a timeless classic. The plot points do not get "wrapped up" so much as they get balled into a giant Gordian knot and lit on fire, but it entertains all the same. The ending is a straight Hail Mary, What The Hell? kind of finale, the kind that gets its walking papers from something other than logic. Don't waste your brain trying to figure it out. Just sit back and enjoy the ride, such as it is.
The presentation seems good, with an anamorphic transfer that ramps up the white/black contrast, giving the whole film a stylish, overexposed look. Colors are muted and yellow-tinted, but black levels are nice and solid. Detail is sharp with no noticeable compression artifacts or picture defects. The 5.1 Korean surround track is surprisingly tame, with a center-channel driven presentation and moderate bass response, but the rear channels pop up unexpectedly now and then. Extras are thin—a 15-minute interview with the cast, a 15-minute behind-the-scenes featurette and a 12-minute featurette discussing the score. I barely noticed the score watching Puzzle, so that says pretty much everything you need to know.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If you like seeing the same kind of film over and over again, Puzzle isn't so bad. What it does, it does solidly (albeit unremarkably) and manage to connect its various dots along the way, until the end, when it just says "nuts" and goes for the crazy. Sometimes, these derivative, middle-of-the-road genre films can be oddly satisfying, if that is what your dangerously atrophied brain is in the mood for…you know? When you can quote Keizer Soze's dialogue word-for-word, sometimes a change of scenery is refreshing.
For thriller fans looking for a little déjà vu in a foreign language, Puzzle should seem as warm and inviting as a nice hot bowl of kimchi bokkeumbap. Ultimately, there are better films out there, both at home and overseas, and all Puzzle really made me want to do was watch them.
A solid neutral rating, good if you are in the mood for something middle-ground.
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