Leverage: Episodes 1-2 (Review)
I wasn’t planning on watching TV Chosun’s remake of the hit US drama, but the concept reminded me of one of my favorite shows, Police Unit 38 so I thought I’d give it a shot. I’m pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it, and while I have no particular interest in watching the source material, I do think I’m along for the ride for this. Fast-paced and action-filled, the show packs a lot into two hours. It could almost function like a standalone movie with how much character and plot development we’ve already seen.
The show opens with an attempted heist on an art gallery, introducing us to yellow-haired techie JUNG EUI-SUNG (Yeo Hwae-hyun) and money-loving action girl GO NA-BYUL (Kim Sae-ron). The two bicker as Eui-sung guides her through the theft of an artefact, but their mission is ill-fated as Na-byul ends up tripping the alarm and Eui-sung runs away.
Lee Dong-gun plays highly successful insurance fraud investigator LEE TAE-JOON, who the crims know better as “The Grim Reaper”. He seems to be pretty familiar with the heist pair, and even helps Eui-sung get away from Na-byul when she runs him down… or so Eui-sung thinks, until they pick up Na-byul, too. Rather than catch them, Tae-joon is there to recruit them for a heist of his own.
That’s because his kid is terminally sick and given barely three months to live. Tae-joon resigns from his job and quickly derails his life to acquire a cancer drug that seems to be his best hope. The problem is that the drug is still in development, and he has to go through some shady turns to acquire it.
On intel provided by his kid’s attending physician (I’m not even going to start on the questionable ethics, lol), he makes contact with an underground doctor called So Ma who seems to be a Chinese defector. He provides Tae-joon with one dose of the drug, Asana, which he is using for his own son, but says that the only way they can get more is if Tae-joon recovers his stolen research from a company called Mirae Pharamaceutical.
That’s why Tae-joon recruits the two young scammers and the newly-formed team carry out a carefully co-ordinated plan. But a series of irregularities as they progress give way to some Big Problems, from a severed zipline to an anonymous tip-off to Mirae’s Head of Security. And that’s not to mention the uneasy suspicion you get at this point as you begin to wonder if the team are actually stealing the data from its rightful owners and handing it off to the bad guys.
Eui-sung and Na-byul get out by the skin of their teeth, only for a bomb to explode the elevator they were in. The first episode leaves off there, and I have to admit, it left me a bit of a gasping wreck because a) what a horrible way to die, and b) I’d gotten attached to the pair and their cartoonish bumbling and bickering personalities.
Frankly, it’s a relief that TV Chosun is airing Leverage’s two episodes back-to-back, because the space between the first episode and the second still felt like a slice of drama purgatory—which I would’ve been saved from if I’d paid attention to the opening credits or literally any promo for the show. They’re the main cast! Therefore not dead in episode 1! Okay!
But Tae-joon doesn’t know that, and he’s wretched. Too late, he realizes he’s been had by So Ma. He convinces the arresting officer hyung to give him one week to fix things and save his son, and then promises to turn himself in.
On the run, he seeks the help of an old connection, HWANG SOO-KYUNG (Jeon Hye-bin)—a Z-list actress who couldn’t get a director to cast her, so she bought her own theater. She’s cocky and immediately likeable, with an aura of elegance that masks a gutsy spirit. Aw, I really like Jeon Hye-bin from her Joseon Gunman days and this role seems like it’ll be great fun for her.
We’re not told exactly how they’re connected, but given Tae-joon’s track record, he probably booked her for something, and she’s definitely not over it, lol. She grudgingly agrees, and so the second episode sees the tables turn as the hunted now becomes the hunter.
He’s overjoyed to find out that Na-byul and Eui-sung made it out alive. They’re furious about what happened and ready to pay it back with interest. Their investigations reveal that the So Ma dude is in fact the head of an fake pharma company, and everything that Tae-joon was shown from the hidden clinic to the restaurant that fronted it was an elaborate deep-fake, all for the sake of manipulating him into doing their dirty work for them.
Since Mirae lost Asana, their stock value has plunged, and that’s where So Ma steps in to buy them out, looking to legitimize his company by merging with them. Of course, there’s a shadowy boardroom full of smug, powerful old men hemming and hawing about a mysterious Chairman they all answer to but nobody has ever seen.
Mirae also sacks their Chief of Security, ex-US Marine ROY RYU (Kim Kwon), over the burglary, and he’s left with an impossible sum of damages to pay, since it was written into his contract that he’s liable for any losses that occur on his watch.
The team set about stealing the data back and Tae-joon narrowly avoids being caught, thanks to Roy, who’s been tracking them. He wants his job back, which he says temporarily makes them allies as they both want to retrieve what So Ma has—Tae-joon wants the ampoule of the drug, Roy wants the data about it. Thus, he becomes the final addition to the team. Unlike the others, he’s reserved to the point of being aloof, but extremely capable.
So Ma has put the word out that his company is selling the Asana data, and the team now pull a more complicated scam as they get between So Ma and his potential buyers. To So Ma, Soo-kyung poses as a rep from a Japanese company, while to the Japanese company, she poses as a rep from So Ma. It takes all of her mental agility and finest acting to keep So Ma from suspecting their play.
But it very nearly comes undone when Tae-joon’s kid’s condition rapidly deteriorates, and Tae-joon is ready to forget everything and just grab the medicine. Soo-kyung smuggles it out to him, but by the time he makes it to the hospital…it’s too late.
It’s refreshing to see Lee Dong-gun not play a villain for a change. He’s had a prolonged run of playing bad guys and really bad guys that I’d forgotten how sympathetic he can be when he’s not being… sketchy and murdery. Though I couldn’t resist sneaking a peek at the preview, I’m not quite sure what to expect going forward. Given that the source material ran to five seasons, does it follow an episodal procedural model, or is there a season-/series-long arc? I’ve learnt that procedurals really don’t work for me, so I’m hoping in the case of the Korean version, it will be the latter.
I’m also very wary of US-to-Korea crime show remakes (à la Criminal Minds—forgotten but never forgiven), and the opening musical notes of this show immediately put me in mind of Suits, another insipid remake saved only by an instrumental track on the OST that I loved at first hearing. There’s something about that format that just seems not to translate well, though I would welcome being proven wrong in this case. On the positive side, Leverage doesn’t feel like it’s copying anything, and its plot points and character archetypes really are K-drama trope staples. If I didn’t know it was an adaptation, I certainly wouldn’t have guessed it.
That is all to say that I’m fairly optimistic for this show, and the opener has convinced to keep watching. If you guys enjoy it, I might come back for mid-series and final reviews, so let me know in the comments if I should be keeping up. I’m ready for this to be cheeky fun despite the heavy beginning, and I can see the team hijinks turning to sincere emotion, and you know, that’s half of what I’m here for in the end: fellowship and feelings! The other half is a solid, gripping plot—so come on Leverage, make it good!