“City Hunter” is a fast-moving action show, but its roots are planted in a dramatic father-son conflict.
The action consists of smart cloak-and-dagger deceptions, martial arts fights and an extensive set-piece gun fight in the first episode. It’s dynamic television, but the thriller elements aren’t really the best thing about “City Hunter.” The bad guys’ schemes are pretty obvious and the plot requires occasional suspension of disbelief.
But the characters’ relationships with each other are carefully drawn and plausible. The combination of action and suspense with real emotion is what makes this 20-part series from 2011 excellent.
The series takes its title from a Japanese manga, but it’s more or less independent from the source material. Lee Min-Ho plays 28-year-old Lee Yoon-Sung, who has an epic origin story even before the main action gets going. As an infant he’s kidnapped by his father’s army buddy Lee Jin-Pyo (Kim Sang-Joong), the sole survivor of the sneak attack that killed Yoon-Sung’s father and twenty other men. Jin-Pyo raises him for one purpose only: to get revenge on the five politicians who betrayed them.
Yoon-Sung is like the Count of Monte Christo if the Count had started training for vengeance before he could even walk. In the first episode we see a few scenes of his lonely childhood learning to shoot guns and kill men with his bare hands. Next, it’s off to the United States for an education under an assumed name. When he arrives in Seoul to carry out Jin-Pyo’s plans, he possesses vast wealth, a Ph.D. in computer science and Lee Min-Ho’s style and swagger.
To say that “City Hunter” is a revenge story makes it sound too simplistic, however. Lee Jin-Pyo is obsessed with his project but Yoon-Sung has his own ideas. In the first episode, the son and his adopted father are already close to coming to blows about the nature of justice. Jin-Pyo wants to kill the guilty parties and wash his hands in their blood. Yoon-Sung prefers to stealthily humiliate his opponents, then let them live with their shame.
The growing father-son conflict gives emotional depth to Yoon-Sung’s skirmishes against corrupt politicians and businessmen. It’s the real heart of the story, because Lee Jin-Pyo becomes a far more intimidating opponent for Yoon-Sung than his original five targets.
Yoon-Sung makes a compelling character. When he isn’t pursuing justice as the mysterious “city hunter,” he wears the alter-ego of a shallow playboy. Before you can say “Bruce Wayne,” he’s falling in love with Kim Na-Na (Park Min-Young), a female security agent who is protecting several of his targets. She thinks he’s a jerk, a poor marksman, and pathetic at martial arts. As Yoon-Sung and his crush practice side by side on the shooting range, you can’t help but wonder who will have to shoot whom first.
To complicate matters, Yoon-Sung is competing for Na-Na’s attention against the public prosecutor charged with arresting the “city hunter” for vigilantism—and Yoon-Sung has some chemistry with the prosecutor’s ex-wife. This hero is completely prepared to dig a bullet out of his own shoulder, but he might not be ready for the awkward social situations coming his way.
Yoon-Sung is also conflicted about whether he wants to meet his birth mother now that he’s back in Seoul. He doesn’t know Jin-Pyo kidnapped him; he believes his mother abandoned him. His true origins are veiled from him until relatively late in the story, with each new revelation making his situation more complicated.
The most interesting conflict might be the one between Yoon-Sung and Prosecutor Kim Young-Joo (played by Lee Joon-Hyuk). Kim is pursuing the same targets as Yoon-Sung, but through legal means. He wants to show that the law has teeth, especially when he learns that his own father is an embezzler.
Unfortunately, Yoon-Sung’s unconventional methods are sometimes more effective than legal means. Prosecutor Kim is thankful and angry that Yoon-Sung collects evidence on his own and delivers his targets tied up and addressed “To Prosecutor Kim.”
On a personal level, the two are romantic rivals who detest each other. Yet their shared desire for justice and their cat-and-mouse game against each other lead to mutual respect. They’re well-matched for intelligence and determination, making it hard to choose whom to root for at times. They’re also both fighting against their fathers to establish their own standards of justice.
Eventually, we can see an irony to their stories. Though our vigilante hero is by definition one man alone against the world, his successes depend on his trust in a few key people, such as his longtime sidekick Shik Joong (played by K-drama veteran Kim Sang-Ho). In contrast, the prosecutor believes in doing things the legal way, but he isolates himself from others and has no one to rely on. After a bad day at work, he finds himself showing up at his ex-wife’s for sympathy.
Both men struggle with the desire to be self-sufficient versus the longing for something “normal”—a life connected to others. Ironically, the orphan raised on a Golden Triangle drug plantation turns out to be better at caring for others than the lawyer with the privileged upbringing.
“City Hunter” pulls together all these emotional and legal conflicts with panache. At its heart, it’s a swash-buckler that recalls Alexandre Dumas. It gives us well-paced action, clever ruses and a sense of humor. Dumas left his true mark on literature with his mastery of a particular tone of story-telling that reverberates today. The author revered heroism, but at the same time lovingly skewered his heroes’ moments of egotism and hypocrisy. This mix of idealism and humor marks many of the best post-industrial adventure stories.
“City Hunter” achieves this balance with good editing and a script full of humorous touches, like Shik-Joong’s addiction to the home-shopping channel and Prosecutor Kim’s ability to track the vain Yoon-Sung by his rare, imported Chanel shower gel.