This is one of those shows (for me at least) that walks a very fine line with the humour. The pendulum swings from being bleakly humourous to outrageously comical. The bleak part I don't mind but the outrageous part is what sees me cringing inwardly now and again and rolling my eyes. To me much of the slapstick and exaggerated expressions/gestures don't add much to the storytelling although some might appreciate the comic relief. For others on the other hand, it might be off-putting. It could be acquired taste but then I'm not sure if it's worth the time or the effort... rather like the offerings from the faux Italian restaurant (Areuno) run by wannabe chef Toto.
The drama of course has one key ingredient which makes almost everything palatable and that is Song Joong-ki. He oozes with charm and cool in the titular role as a Korean-born consigliere. Our introduction to him as he rubs shoulders with mafia opponents gives him his comparable John Wick moment. In a payback move (orders from his late mentor) he sets fire to a vineyard doused with combustible liquid. His choice of weapon is a Zippo lighter which he plays with symbolizing the fact that there's a dangerous man lurking beneath the well-groomed nicely suited facade. Even while he seems attractive and mild-mannered, he is not someone that should be crossed. Song Joong-ki is terrific in the role playing the straight guy to a host of escapees from a psychiatric facility cast of colourful and emotionally off-kilter characters. Generally the inscrutable Vincenzo keeps his cool while everyone else hits the panic button in ways that can be considered farcical. The occupants of Geumgang Plaza are a jarring and raucous reminder that the drama should be viewed entirely as a farce.
Unfortunately for him, Vincenzo is a creature belonging neither in Italy nor his birthplace, South Korea. The show hammers home the counter-culture shock when he is robbed on the way to meeting his collaborator and is the butt of some insinuations of his outsider status. He is a fish out of water especially when he has no family to anchor himself to in either contexts. Certainly introducing himself as Vincenzo Cassano in Seoul sees him looked upon (at least initially) as a suspicious sojourner. However, there are advantages to being an outsider as we gradually come to see. It gives one a different perspective and clarity of mind what's really going on. The veneer of respectability conceals a kind of accepted barbarism.
Vincenzo's evolving relationship with Yoo Jae-myung's crusading lawyer, Hong Yoo-chan, is probably one of the show's highlights for me. The two have a connection in Vincenzo's mother who is serving time in prison for a murder that she took the rap for. More than that there's a lovely role reversal between them. Here the older man is the idealist and the people's champion while the younger one is a cynical, world-wise operator. Given his background, it doesn't take Vincenzo too long to work out what the Enemy is because he's been around them most of his life. He is the sort of fix-it guy Yoo-chan desperately needs as he's up against adversaries who are unconscionable about using violence and threats.
There are hints of a possible romance between Vincenzo and Yoo-chan's ambitious daughter, Hong Cha-young. The set-up has her and Yoo-chan are on opposite sides in the fray with Babel Inc. To her mind it's just easier to fall in line with the status quo while her father's persistence in going up against Big Pharma is an exercise in kicking the goads. As far as she's concerned, there's no need to go too far... whatever that means. But in this world run by thugs and gangsters, justice is a word that has no place in it.
I'm not so sure about Cha-young to be honest. I don't know if it's Jeon Yeo-bin or how she's being directed and/or how she's written. According to Asiawiki she was in Live but I'm struggling to remember her character there. My feeling is that she's a competent enough performer from how she delivers important emotional beats but all the nutty stuff the show has her doing diminishes the character's street creds as a professional woman. It's a hard sell considering what's at stake. However, it is a 20 episode drama... I have mixed feelings about that... so there's certainly ample time for her character to be developed.
For those of us in the know, Babel is something of a running gag in this show. I was chuckling when the company was first introduced as such. It's a reference to Genesis 10 in the Bible where the human decides to build a monument ie. tower that "reaches the heavens". There's been some debate over what that means but the general agreement is that it's a consolidation of power in defiance of the edict of the Creator to "be fruitful, multiply and fill the earth". The Tower of Babel was never completed because communication lines were disrupted among the builders. All building came to a screeching halt when the workers started speaking different languages and were forced by circumstances to migrate elsewhere.
The way I see it, Vincenzo, whether he knows it or not, is that heaven-sent disruption against the mighty Babel. What he wants is the gold buried at the bottom of the building and he's not going to give in that easily. But if there's one thing that one notes quickly about the Old Testament is that God uses all kinds of unexpected people to do his work -- many who are deeply flawed and often not-very-virtuous types. This is not to say He condones their activities but they become inadvertent instruments to achieve other ends.
In all likelihood the gold's gone. That's a theory I have. Or there's something fishy about the senior monk who seems to know where to position himself. Who happens to fidget at the right moment as if he is a sentinel keeping watch. I'm happy to keep on speculating. All that to say that the heist element does show promise if only we can be sure that the pacing doesn't go wobbly somewhere in the middle.