I… really didn’t know what I should have expected. It’s a bit sad to say for the first two episodes that I’m actually more disappointed by the series than I thought I would be. But I should have seen the warning signs – with Kwak Jung Hwan as the director (and he did Basketball and Runaway Plan B before this), and a newbie writer on the scene. I watched it faithfully for Park Shi Hoo, but at the end of the day I really don’t know if I want to continue.
We start with a flashy sequence in Macao three years ago. Baek Shi Yoon (Park Shi Hoo) is planning a covert operation against an American investor, Curtis Brimmer, who claims to be a CEO of Bay Star Hong Kong, but that’s just a paper company. Bay Star is planning to buy out a major Korean bank, and Shi Yoon’s team is trying to find out what exactly he’s trying to do with the bank. He plants his colleague – and girlfriend – Seo Ahn (Choi Yoon So) to seduce Brimmer and get a way to plant spyware on his cellphone.
Cue some really bad acting in English, some fancy dates and snazzy fight scenes, and next thing we know Shi Yoon is ordered to cancel the mission. His boss, Jung Soo Hyuk (Jeong Man Shik) received orders from higher up to cease it immediately. Shi Yoon refuses to, and with his other team member Jin Woo (Ji Il Woo) they drive off to track Seo Ahn. Except they get hit spectacularly by a train.
Turns out, Brimmer was on to them and he has his henchmen capture Shi Yoon, Seo Ahn, and Jin Woo to interrogate them. They want to know who Shi Yoon’s working for, and threaten to kill Seo Ahn. Jin Woo interferes and makes a huge fuss, claiming he was the one planning it all and knew everything. He lunges forward at one of the henchman and is instead choked to death by the guy’s yo-yo string. I’ll call this guy Yo-Yo for now.
Well – that’s the end of that, and three years later it seems that Shi Yoon is getting out of prison with a fellow inmate Yong Jin. Disobeying orders during a foreign mission and harming another’s life is enough to put Shi Yoon in prison, especially to quell the possibility of a diplomatic crisis. Soo Hyuk picks Shi Yoon up from prison, as he’s now in charge of retired agents’ futures post-agency life. It’s a bit demeaning for Soo Hyuk, but he knows this will be the last stage in his career. So now his only worry is what on earth Shi Yoon plans to do with his time.
We then meet Detective Im Tae Ho (Jo Sung Ha), a lackadaisical officer with three kids and a wife, and a piling amount of bills to pay. He can’t extend his loans on his apartment anymore, has no extra jobs that he can do to bring in additional income, and has an exorbitant bill from Neighborhood Bar from the night before when he went out with his coworkers. Suffice to say, Tae Ho is a mess.
He visits Neighborhood Bar to beg the owner, President Hwang (Song Jae Ho) and one of the part-timers, aspiring scriptwriter Bae Jung Yeon (Kwon Yuri), to forgive the bill this once. So you can see that we have quite the bumbling cast of characters here. If you were expecting a superhero who’s cooler than the rest (like I was), then… this is not it.
Shi Yoon happens upon the Neighborhood Bar and discovers that it’s closing down once Hwang sells it. Turns out he was hoping to use the bar as a meeting place for certain people and to have certain conversations. He hates the idea of change though, and that puts the thought in his head to buy the place himself. He can tell that the bar is frequented by former agents, and if Neighborhood Bar is gone then they’ll all lose a place to meet and talk. Hwang can tell that Shi Yoon cares about keeping the bar as is and offers Shi Yoon to take over, but Shi Yoon isn’t quite sure he wants to do that post-espionage life.
Eventually he comes around and decides to take over the bar, promising to keep it as is. Shi Yoon tries very hard to ingratiate himself to the customers, always eavesdropping on conversations and trying to help. When Tae Ho stops by the bar he rightfully finds Shi Yoon quite annoying, while the rest of the patrons don’t quite now how to react to Shi Yoon.
Meanwhile Tae Ho meets with a former senior, Park Sun Hoo (Ahn Suk Hwan), who has a proposition for him. Looks like Sun Hoo has ties with intelligence agencies, and he sometimes gets sub-contracting work from them. Sun Hoo is aware that Tae Ho is going through some hard times so he proposes that Tae Ho make some extra money on the side by doing a particular sub-contracting job for him: he’ll need to tail a few retirees from the spying world to make sure that they follow the rules after discharge. Tae Ho is excited just to have extra income come in so he sets up a really simple company called Chun Gye Plan as a front for the business. Now he just needs to find an employee.
Jung Yeon visits her friend, So Mi (Kim Bo Mi), a cafe owner who just learned that she’ll be kicked out soon because her landlord sold the property to a bank to make way for a shopping center. So Mi is really worried, especially since she spent all of her savings on this bar, but Jung Yeon promises that they’ll work it out with others in the neighborhood.
Now we meet Choi Chan Gyu (Lee Soo Hyuk), an aspiring police man who thinks that the uniform will help him get all the girls. Thing is, he needs to pass the written exam first. If he could even get to the testing center on time.
He reaches the gates just as they’re closing it, and Tae Ho observes Chan Gyu leaping over walls and outrunning guards with an amused look on his face. Clearly Chan Gyu will do anything it takes, and that’s the kind of man Tae Ho is looking for for his new “company.” He recruits the kid after the exam is over, and then introduces him to two other recruits: Im Seon Joo and another nerdy looking guy. Both are related in some way to Tae Ho’s sunbae, which is why he hired them. Each one is tasked with following a former agent (though they don’t know that) and making sure that they’re upstanding citizens. Chan Gyu asks for tips on how to monitor these people, but Tae Ho dismissively tells them all to watch some movies.
So Chan Gyu proceeds to track Seo Joon Suk (Kang Nam Gil), and he is so immensely obvious. When he ends up on the bus with Joon Suk, the only seat left available is next to him! It’s so obvious that he’s tailing Joon Suk that it’s almost a bit sad. Joon Suk ends up going to the bar, and he and Shi Yoon recognize each other. Joon Suk was the one who noticed Chan Gyu’s operation on Brimmer as it was happening and reported it to Shi Yoon’s bosses before it got worse. He caused the operation to get canceled, but Shi Yoon’s stubbornness in continuing got someone killed.
Joon Suk’s presence is short-lived, as he is eventually killed by Y0-Yo. Sadly, it also happened under Chan Gyu’s “watch,” but Chan Gyu had been caught just before by Joon Suk and told not to follow him around because he wasn’t going to leave his house. So you can imagine the frustration Tae Ho feels when his employee failed his task and when he’s not even allowed to investigate the case as a detective.
Eventually, some gangsters threaten So Mi’s cafe and terrorize her into giving up her cafe’s property. Jung Yeon tries to protect her by providing moral support, but Shi Yoon ends up intervening. He’s seen how So Mi is mistreated, and he is annoyed that So Mi’s situation is preventing Jung Yeon from putting hours into the bar. So Shi Yoon gives himself a bit of a disguise wearing Chan Gyu’s cap and a black face mask, and then proceeds to beat the gangsters up. It makes him a bit of a hero to So Mi and Jung Yeon, so I guess this is the start of Shi Yoon’s vigilante life.
Neighborhood Hero spends a bit too much time in the first episode establishing the characters instead of helping cement the drama’s focus. The fight scenes and the first 15 minutes are splashy – kind of like Runaway Plan B, which was one of Kwak’s last project – and feels like a distraction in hindsight. It spends about 15 minutes introducing Tae Ho and his family life without giving any indication on why Tae Ho is an important character. It introduces Park Sun Hoo without explaining who Park Sun Hoo is and why Tae Ho trusts him so much, and why they need to create another company just to follow retirees around. It introduces Shi Yoon’s mother, but she barely makes a blip on the radar after her brief scenes. And it shows you Neighborhood Bar and the people in it without explaining quite clearly what the importance of Neighborhood Bar is. So you get snippets of information, but not enough to bring it all together in a cohesive manner.
It’s a clear mark of a newbie writer who’s trying to be ambitious in creating this world, and failing miserably at it by being bogged down by the details. We lose focus on who we’re trying to follow, and why. There’s an entire dance sequence in episode two where Jung Yeon fantasizes being a spy for her script, and it does nothing except allow Yuri to do some stunts and wear a slinky white dress herself. It adds nothing to the script, and could honestly have been cut in half. Shame on Kwak Jung Hwan for letting the writer Kim Gwan Hoo get away with all that. Kim also tried to make the world immensely complex by introducing a grand scheme of Bay Star Hong Kong affecting Korean banks and trying to gentrify neighborhoods through a series of high-level and low-level gangsters, who in turn have their own ways of terrorizing the neighborhood with their own secret schemes. It’s almost a bit too much, and I wish these schemes did not have to be so complicated.
Speaking of Jung Yeon, I am very frustrated with how Yuri is portraying her. Part of it could be blamed on the actress, but I think greater fault lies in the director. Yuri portrays Jung Yeon as a smart woman who just so happens to be a part-timer to help pay the bills. She’s a supportive best friend, and you’d think she’s a stronger girl who won’t get pushed around so easily. But once she’s saved by Shi Yoon all masked up, she has this moment of admiration for him, and smiles excessively. Honestly in that situation I think she should have been shocked and a little fearful of the masked hero, but instead she becomes a damsel in distress who falls in love with any knight who comes her way. And it doesn’t make sense for me as a character. I don’t think she should have been directed to smile at Shi Yoon’s presence, or to so obviously shun Shi Yoon as the savior. I don’t think she should have been so excited to meet Chan Gyu even if she mistakenly thinks he’s the hero.
It sucks for me to see a female lead be so diminished when she is also set up to be quite important in the series. But the worst thing of all is making Seo Ahn a recurring character. I have a problem with Choi Yoon So that grows increasingly bigger by the drama. She has played useless roles in the past few CJ dramas where she could have added some extra color to her supporting character but doesn’t. She’s incredibly bland and one note, and in my opinion sucks the life out of the TV screen. I think she was diminished in Liar’s Game both because her character really didn’t add anything to the story and because she wasn’t very good. I think she didn’t present herself as a formidable second female lead against Choi Ji Woo in Twenty Again because she doesn’t have screen presence. And now you expect me to believe that Park Shi Hoo was in love with her one time? What’s worse is that in the first episode she is not convincing enough to make me believe she’s a super spy and really good at her job (and the English really doesn’t help), and when she makes her return at the end of the second episode the intensity is all coming from Park Shi Hoo when he recognizes her. She is so flimsy in this drama. I wish she wouldn’t be a big character who will constantly return.
It makes me wonder as well how good this director is in portraying female characters, and how well the writer is writing them out to be. It feels like Kwak Jung Hwan will lovingly light and portray Park Shi Hoo with abs working out or showering, but spend little time on the females. Even So Mi is a little ridiculous, and I’m supposed to want her to be able to keep her cafe open. Honestly, I couldn’t care less whether she does or not, because the writing does not make me sympathize with her.
Yoon Tae Young does present himself to be a formidable foe who wants his way when it comes to gentrifying the neighborhood the drama takes place in. I can believe him seriously as a bad guy, and he’s a saving grace in this drama. However, his whole connection to Bay Star and petty gangsters is too flimsy at the moment and doesn’t solidify his position as a threat in this world.
While Park Shi Hoo’s acting has been somewhat the same since Cheongdamdong Alice (which isn’t the bad thing; he was quite a decent and charming actor), he’s definitely not what I thought the character would be. I knew that this drama would be a comedy based on the teasers, but what I didn’t expect was for him to be so self-involved, to be such a nosy character, to so ostentatiously show off his skills as a spy, and yet try to be discreet when helping others. I thought that Shi Yoon was going to be the straight man in all of this, the stoic and serious former secret agent who is surrounded by a cast of ridiculous people, and who tries to help others quietly. So far all he’s done is help chase gangsters away from So Mi’s cafe.
Lee Soo Hyuk is quite entertaining to watch. I like seeing him as a lackluster student who pretty much isn’t good at anything, and the drama does a fine job in setting that up. They introduce a woman from his past who is now a successful lawyer (highlighting the fact that it’s been years and he hasn’t been able to become a police officer himself), and you don’t even understand how she plays a role in this drama. There are already too many characters; how is this lawyer friend even important in the whole realm of things? Is she going to end up defending the bad guys or something? I also don’t like how Shi Yoon pushes himself upon Chan Gyu, because I don’t understand why Shi Yoon would be so interested in him in the first place. And there has to be a reason if he ends up taking Chan Gyu under his wing.
All in all, this drama is trying to have too much fun but it’s sacrificing its story for the sake of it. It’s hard to say whether I can continue watching this drama when much better written shows like Cheese in the Trap, Madame Antoine, and Signal are all playing at the same time. What will make it or break it for me are episodes 3-4. I ‘d like to believe that not all hope is lost just yet, otherwise this drama is wasting yet another perfectly good cast of actors.