For the Emperor is a combination of bloody and pointless. Director Park is sort of impersonal about the violence–even though it’s usually very personal (knife fights)–as though giving it some distance will make the characters seem less reprehensible. Lee Yong-soo’s screenplay barely shows any of the victims of the gangsters; it’s all just tough bad men versus other though bad men.
They’re just boring tough bad men.
Lee Min-ki’s the lead. He’s a disgraced, betting baseball player who ends up collecting for loan sharks. Because in addition to being a not so great relief pitcher, he’s unbeatable in a fight (until the plot requires him to lose one) and really good at gambling. Park Sung-woong, as an established mid-level gangster, takes him in and cultivates him into… well, into a focused psychopath.
Park Sung-woong’s really, really good in the film. He just doesn’t have anything to do. Lee’s not really good, but he’s decent enough for the script. There’s very little ambition to Emperor, though director Park tries to do a lot of flashy montages (often well edited and occasionally with good music) to hide the weak plot twists.
There’s some good direction, but then Park will do one of the terrible sex scenes between Lee and his madame girlfriend (Lee Tae-im); they’re terrible and go on forever. Occasionally nicely scored though.
Emperor isn’t tough enough or ambitious enough to be offensive. It’s competent and occasionally interesting and mostly decently acted. Mostly.