Five drama recommendations… with vigilante heroes
by DB Staff
There are heroes, and then there are vigilante heroes. Whether they’re fighting against the system that failed them, against deep-rooted corruption, or against their own demons — or heck, why not all three — there is something very satisfying about how K-dramas spin these tales. Here are some of our favorite dramas about vigilante heroes: some old, some new, all beautiful.
City Hunter (2011)
I’ve said it before, but City Hunter will probably always hold the honorary title of my favorite K-drama, regardless of how many “better” ones I’ve watched and loved since. It completely captivated me from Episode 1, drove me to multiple re-watches in a very short period of time, and — fun fact — was part of what led me to discover Dramabeans recaps. (Thanks, City Hunter!)
Our hero, Lee Yoon-sung (Lee Min-ho) was kidnapped as a baby and raised to be the perfect revenge weapon by his late father’s best friend, Lee Jin-pyo (Kim Sang-joong). As Jin-pyo lays out an elaborate plan to kill the five men who betrayed him and his comrades, Yoon-sung finds himself caught in the classic dilemma of how to exact justice where the law fails to do so without losing his soul — or his love — in the process. This of course puts him at odds with secret service agent Kim Nana (Park Min-young) and dogged prosecutor Kim Young-joo (Lee Jun-hyuk), despite falling in love with the former and sharing somewhat of a common goal (justice) with the latter.
This drama really does have it all: revenge, romance, secret identities, iconic fight scenes (the spoon sequence, anyone?), a lovable ajusshi sidekick, complicated father/son relationships, cohabitation hijinks, and much more. And while it’s entirely possible that the pedestal I’ve placed it on in my head is one that it doesn’t quite deserve, I’m perfectly happy to leave it there anyway.
Heartless City (2013)
There’s a lot of vigilante stories in dramaland, but noirs are in short supply. That’s part of what made Heartless City so memorable, especially back in 2013 when it aired. The drama is about a criminal enterprise and the undercover investigation that seeks to bring them down. It’s dark, it’s gritty, it’s intense, and it’s got Jung Kyung-ho as an elusive figure in the criminal underworld who is accused of murder and seeks to catch the true culprit.
Heartless City is the drama that introduced me to Jung Kyung-ho, and what an introduction it was. I love a good vigilante or antihero type, and his inscrutable, tortured criminal boss with hidden depths hit the spot. Add in a bromance between Jung Kyung-ho and Yoon Hyun-min and a badass Kim Yoo-mi as the enterprising criminal Madam Lee, and I was sold.
Despite centering on cartels and the seedy criminal underworld, as with all the best Korean dramas, this drama (ironically) has heart. It also keeps you guessing and has that vigilante hero goodness that makes for an engrossing watch. If you’re looking for a different type of vigilante story with a touch of noir, Heartless City is your drama. –@quirkycase
At first glance, Healer shares a lot of similarities with City Hunter — revenge, a vigilante who pretends to be terrible at fighting to avoid discovery, Park Min-young — so it makes sense that the two are often compared to each other, and that both rank high on my favorites list. The titular “Healer,” A.K.A. Jung-hoo (Ji-chang-wook), is a sort of mercenary-for-hire who just wants to earn enough money to move away to his own private island for the rest of his life. Until, that is, he starts getting deeply and personally invested in one of his jobs. And in a certain reporter.
With probably my favorite performances from both Ji Chang-wook and Park Min-young, an adorable and compelling romance (that places the hero in a love triangle against himself, no less!), Kim Mi-kyung as an eccentric computer-hacking sidekick, plenty of mystery and intrigue, and a quest to right the wrongs of the previous generation, there’s a lot to love about Healer, whether it’s your first time through or a re-watch years later. In fact, you might even say it’s an Eternal Love. (Sorry.) (Not really.) –@mistyisles
Taxi Driver (2021)
Sometimes, there’s nothing more satisfying than the sheer catharsis of beating a vile villain up. Taxi Driver follows a group of vigilantes who run a taxi company as a cover for their real operation — exacting vengeance on the behalf of victims who cannot receive recourse through legal channels.
Lee Je-hoon stars as Kim Do-gi, a role that highlights the ferocious intensity of his acting and showcases his versatility. As Do-gi goes undercover, he dons a wide array of (often hilarious) disguises, and Lee Je-hoon leans into each persona with such gusto. He may be quick to use his fists, but don’t mistake that for a lack of wit. Each case has the team devising detailed strategies to take down the bad guys, and it’s so exciting to watch them outsmart and outmaneuver their opponents.
The drama also features one of my favorite musical actresses, Cha Ji-yeon, in the role of the evil madame; her theater prowess shines through in her effortless charisma that simply commands the screen every time she appears. She presents a formidable foe for our heroes to defeat, which makes their cat-and-mouse game so nail-biting. I love that the other leading ladies, Esom and Pyo Ye-jin, are equally capable and proactive — they’re no damsels in distress, and they have the mettle to prove it.
The drama has a strong cast all around, from the Rainbow Taxi team to the victims of each case, and I found myself crying, laughing, and rooting for all of them by the end of it. If you’re looking for a thrilling ride that will evoke your emotions and heal your heart, with a stylish soundtrack and sleek cinematography to boot, Taxi Driver is the show for you. (And I’m so excited for the sequel, which is slated for next year!) –@solstices
There’s something extremely attractive about a sharply-dressed man dishing out vigilante justice, so it should come as no surprise that I’m a huge fan of Vincenzo and its titular character, who often kicks butt while wearing a three-piece suit. Although Vincenzo’s (Song Joong-ki) backstory is a bit preposterous, this particular Italian mafia consigliere isn’t motivated by personal revenge or an overwhelming sense of righteousness like most vigilantes. Instead, our anti-hero initially avoids the fight he’s ultimately drawn into, and his alliance with the wacky tenants of Geumga Plaza, the building situated on top of his hidden gold bar stash, started out as a matter of self — well, gold — preservation. But when the bad guys start crossing lines that even he wouldn’t step over, his motivation shifts from safeguarding his gold to defending those he’s grown to care about — and his gold, of course.
Vigilante stories are only as good as their villain, though, and the secret mastermind behind all the corruption and murders in this particular drama is as compelling and intriguing as our hero. Working in the shadows and with a puppet as the face of the evil company that’s out to destroy the little guy, the real Big Bad is violent, sadistic, and not afraid to get his hands bloody — even though he has plenty of people who can do his dirty work for him. While there is a lot of humor thrown into this drama and the primary battlefield is in the courtroom, Vincenzo — like any vigilante — ultimately works outside the law to punish the villains who are too wiley and powerful to be apprehended by legal means. –@daebakgrits
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