OCN’s 2020 series Rugal (루갈) accomplishes what other similarly themed series do not. And that is to make a character-driven action thriller. There’s definitely nothing wrong with mindless, adrenaline-fueled fun. But there’s definitely something to having mindless, adrenaline-fueled fun with well-developed and emotionally impactful characters to boot. And that’s Rugal.
This part-action thriller, part-science-fiction drama follows National Intelligence Service-sanctioned black ops team Rugal who are tasked with bringing down the country’s largest criminal organization Argos. After his wife is murdered and his eyes gouged out by Argos hitmen, police officer Kang Ki Beom (Choi Jin Hyuk) is recruited to join Rugal. There, he is given two artificial intelligence-powered eyeballs that help him not only regain his sight, but gives him enhanced abilities.
Fellow Rugal team members include similarly-biotech-enhanced Han Tae Woong (Jo Dong Hyuk), Song Mi Na (Jung Hye In) and Lee Gwang Cheol (Park Sun Ho) with Choi Geun Cheol (Kim Min Sang) as their chief. They are supported by Dr. Oh (Park Choong Sun) and scientists Bradley (Jang In Sub) and Susan (Jang Seo Kyung).
With their enhanced body parts and abilities, Rugal hopes to take the fight directly to Argos and its de factor leader Hwang Deuk Gu (Park Sung Woong). But the brutal organization is also toying with biotechnology to create human weapons to further their business interests and maintain their stranglehold of Korean government.
Rugal features some spectacular, if sometimes over-the-top, action sequences. Legitimately thrilling choreography and direction result in high flying and explosive battles between Rugal and Argos. There is no shortage of action in every one of the series’ briskly paced 16 episodes.
But what sets Rugal apart from the others is its successful focus on its characters. Namely our four elite Rugal agents, especially Kang Ki Beom. As great as the action and grander mission is, it is the characters that drive the narrative.
Rugal effectively establishes and maintains the bond and the relationships of the team while delving deeper into each character’s backstory. That includes their past stories driving their current motivations and actions. And it is because those backstories are presented well, the events of the present and the characters’ response to such events carry much more weight and meaning.
And when each character on their own is fully developed and carry enough depth, establishing a tight bond between them helps to bring it all home. A tight bond between teammates in a story such as this is so important. Especially when the story involves many life-or-death situations, it’s that bond that helps each scene be impactful and relevant.
You want to care about what happens to these characters. And knowing the effect such threats of danger would have on each Rugal team member only enhances the viewing experience even more.
Team Rugal’s bond and their resolve to fight is so well established that many of the series’ emotional climaxes easily hit their mark.
Rugal‘s science fiction aspect also, quite surprisingly, works well. The idea of biotechnology and biomechatronics may not be a new theme, but it is a wholly refreshing twist to a familiar story. The use of biotechnology to create human weapons is a fascinating topic to touch upon. And the series also unexpectedly manages to delve into the moral dilemma such work and experimentation can bring about. The use of humans in biowarfare, terrorism and corruption, though looking like a heavy topic on paper, is seamlessly weaved through the series’ grander narrative and each character’s own personal stories.
And again, that is especially true of our four Rugal team members.
Choi Jin Hyuk is an absolute star as Kang Ki Beom. He is able to exude a strong, heroic charisma while still keeping Ki Beom vulnerable enough for the series’ most emotional story beats to fully land. Handling both the action sequences and the quieter dramatic moments equally well, Choi Jin Hyuk shows once again what he is capable of.
Jo Dong Hyuk, Jung Hye In and Park Sun Ho are just as impactful. Each of their characters get several opportunities to step into the spotlight and each of them grab that chance and run with it. The four of them also share such an excellent, fun chemistry that makes each uniquely emotional scene work.
Antagonist Hwang Deuk Gu may come across as an over-the-top cartoonish villain most of the time, but the experienced Park Sung Woong can take that character and still make him violent and threatening. You can tell he relished bringing this character to life. And without spoiling the series, Park Sung Woong is able to roll with the twists and turns of the series in a way that allows Deuk Gu to actually become a deeper, multi-layered character.
The same can also be said for veteran Kim Min Sang as Chief Choi. And Jang In Sub is a scene stealer as Bradley.
But Rugal‘s most appealing aspect is not the central fight between Rugal and Argos. (Though it is still compelling.) It is the characters and their relationships that truly give Rugal its strongest quality. The way the characters are developed and established really help to allow everything else to fall into place.
Every action sequence, every twist and turn not only make sense, but carry an impactful, emotional weight. That extra bit of emotion leaves you invested in not just the overall story, but in each character’s journey. And that is a certain way to keep you in the audience engaged.
Exciting thrills, well-developed characters, emotional climaxes. Overall, Rugal is a unique and memorable viewing experience.