The 2021 tvN drama series Vincenzo (빈센조) is a wild roller coaster of emotions you willingly hop along for and hold on for dear life. Song Joong Ki leads a stellar ensemble cast in the title role as the hilarious, dramatic and sometimes pulpy series grabs you right from the start and never lets go.
The focus of the series is Vincenzo Cassano (Song Joong Ki) who is adopted by the head of the Cassano mafia family as a little boy and grows up to become a lawyer and Mafia consigliere. After the death of his adopted father, a betrayal within the family forces him to return to Korea where he hopes to reclaim 1.5 tons of gold he helped to secretly stash away for a Chinese business tycoon who has recently died.
But Vincenzo soon finds himself wrapped up in the dispute over Geumga Plaza, the building where the gold is hidden in a secret underground vault. Large conglomerate Babel Group has illegally taken ownership of the building and threatens its small group of eclectic tenants who refuse to vacate.
Vincenzo meets Hong Cha Young (Jeon Yeo Bin), a fierce, cold-blooded corporate lawyer who will do anything to win a case. Together they uncover a far-reaching web of corruption and murder. And though they initially have different principles and go about things in different ways, they grow to find common ground and even open each other’s eyes to new perspectives they may have never acknowledged before thanks in part to their respective lines of work.
At its core, Vincenzo is all about family. And really, family and the different interpretations and meanings of the word. The series very much draws upon the dynamics typically found within organized crime and specifically Italian mafia families. The business may be ruthless and unforgiving. But loyalty for the family is vital and when that trust is broken, there will be consequences.
Vincenzo starts off with some explosive action, quite literally. But it’s around episode 4 when the series really finds its footing and things really kick into high gear. At first a sort of glossy, lighthearted action thriller, Vincenzo takes a serious turn and begins to establish sincere, emotional connections with the characters.
When the characters begin to take center stage as the layers get pulled back and relationships are forged and broken, the series truly takes off and never looks back.
Vincenzo has a knack for repeatedly lulling you into a false of security and comfort before successive sucker punches of twists, emotional shocks and cheerful momentary triumphs.
What might be most fascinating is the series’ bold storytelling. Vincenzo is a morally gray character who is at times an antihero and other times a charismatic, badass romantic lead. It is quite refreshing and actually uncommon to see such a title character in Korean drama. But it is that interesting dynamic that really keeps the series exciting. Vincenzo does not shy away from the fact that our title character is essentially a violent criminal. A violent criminal with a heart? Possibly.
It is established within the first couple of minutes of the series that Vincenzo has no qualms about having to resort to violence to protect himself and his and his family’s interests. At first that family is the Cassano mafia family in Italy. And later, it is the family he finds himself becoming endeared to at Geumga Plaza.
The quirky community at Geumga Plaza becomes a certified family over the course of 20 episodes. And that provides much of the series’ heart, warmth and levity alongside the unrelenting onslaught of blood, corruption and evil acts by the series’ antagonists.
To be clear, Vincenzo isn’t excessively gory. The action sequences can get pretty bloody. But the series finds a careful balance between those and more lighthearted and even hilarious moments throughout.
Relative to other Korean dramas, it does get away with quite a bit more than the usual. And not shying away from the visceral reactions these characters would legitimately have in real life is daring for this medium. Sometimes, many a Korean drama (and other Asian television dramas as well) pull back from such daring storytelling. There is a tendency to pull back and not go too far when it comes to revenge and justice-seeking as a way to maintain some kind of perceived morals or ethics for would-be protagonists.
But that’s exactly why Vincenzo is so exciting and different. It doesn’t excuse or glorify what can otherwise be considered as brutal, savage acts. But it explores the emotions and reactions by not just the person performing these acts, but also of the people around them. Whether those with a vested interest in the grievance or injustice, active participants in such acts or just the innocent bystander that might get caught in the crossfire.
It isn’t a spoiler to say that while many other series attempt to give even the slightest bit of redemption or empathy to the series’ antagonist(s), Vincenzo doesn’t necessarily do that. Vincenzo as well admits he isn’t a nice guy. But being a nice guy isn’t going to be enough to battle against people who are just purely and truly evil.
Vincenzo does an excellent job of ramping up the suspense to make every twist and turn land their punches. The characters being so well-developed with the right foundation and depth allow the series’ eventual multi-episode climax that much more successful and satisfying. And the cast is a big part of what brings it all together.
*Warning! Moderate spoilers ahead.
Song Joong Ki is a commanding presence as Vincenzo. Though he’s certainly had a certain global hit series since, Vincenzo Cassano might be his best role since his critically acclaimed title role in the 2012 series The Innocent Man. Both series and characters share similarities. And when it comes to Song Joong Ki’s performances, both are a reminder that he is an excellent actor. Especially when given the right material. As Vincenzo is such a multi-dimensional character, Song Joong Ki must balance the dramatic with the amusing. He can be scary as he is charming. The character definitely requires much of him, but he effortlessly delivers.
This is definitely a breakout performance for Jeon Yeo Bin. Hong Cha Young is a fun contrast to Vincenzo. At first Cha Young is a typically cutthroat, though easy going lawyer who would do anything to win cases for her all-powerful corporate clients. But she soon sees things from a different perspective. Jeon Yeo Bin navigates the role with the necessary nuance that makes her just as engaging as our title character. Jeon Yeon Bin helps to keep Cha Young from being a mere sidekick and elevates her to being a legitimate lead character who will not get left behind.
Song Joong Ki and Jeon Yeo Bin also share an excellent chemistry that mixes sexual tension with an all-business dynamic that really helps to carry the show that doesn’t need much carrying on its own.
The biggest surprise of the series though might just be the performance from Ok Taecyeon as Jang Jun Woo. As someone who has been a fan of 2PM almost since their debut, it was very unnerving (in a good way!) to see Taecyeon in his first role as an antagonist. I mentioned earlier how things really took off with episode 4. And that is the episode in which we learn the happy-go-lucky intern working as Cha Young’s assistant is actually Jang Han Seok, the true merciless, shadowy chairman of Babel Group. It is the first of many shocking twists. But the moment his true identity is revealed really galvanized the series as something that would end up being refreshingly different.
His performance as Han Seok has him showing a completely different side of him as an actor and it is as shocking a revelation as his character’s true identity was. There was no going back for the character and Taecyeon flourished in the role in a way that was completely terrifying, yet irresistibly engaging. It’s hard to put into words how affecting his performance truly is. Being able to illicit both rage and amusement is definitely a skill. And Taecyeon did that with ease.
Some special mentions also go to Kim Yeo Jin as Jang Han Seok’s own consigliere Choi Myung Hee. An equally terrifying performance from a talented and versatile character actor. I’ve seen her in many varied roles before, but never anything like this. Another really engrossing performance in this series.
Kwak Dong Yeon, also a talented and versatile actor, gets a chance to shine as Jang Han Seo. The character has one of the windiest roads to navigate in the series. But Kwak Dong Yeon draws on his experience to easily navigate those roads with a carefully nuanced performance that makes his character one of the most intriguing.
*Moderate spoilers end.
Overall, with a healthy mix of drama, comedy and action, Vincenzo is a thoroughly enjoyable and wild roller coaster of a ride. Twists and turns have you on the edge of your seat. Lighthearted and charming moments keep a smile on your face. And the dramatic action will have you cycling through the five stages of grief. But bringing it all together, Vincenzo is one of the most simply fun television experiences in a long time.