Review: In action fest ‘Friend 2,’ a criminal sticks to his element

This post has been corrected. See note below for details.

One of the all-time top-grossing films at the South Korean box office, “Friend” played at the AFI Fest in 2001 but never saw a stateside theatrical release. Writer-director Kwak Kyung-taek’s semi-autobiographical coming-of-age story — set against the Busan underworld — resonated with an entire generation of South Koreans, but much of its appeal eluded audiences abroad who weren’t privy to that collective memory. Nevertheless, its sequel, “Friend 2: The Legacy,” arrives in a dozen American theaters 12 years later, perhaps as a testament to the thriving ethnic enclaves across the nation.

Upon his release from a 17-year prison sentence, Lee Joon-suk (Yu Oh-seong) returns to find mutiny imminent within his criminal enterprise. So he recruits Choi Sung-hoon (Kim Woo-bin) — his protégé while inside the pen — to quell the uprising.

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If the original “Friend” emanated “GoodFellas,” “Friend 2” fancies itself the South Korean answer to “The Godfather: Part II.” But little parallelism or consequence can be gleaned from Kwak’s narrative that crosscuts points between 1963 and 2010. Seeing as his surrogate in the first film is absent in the sequel, the shared cultural memory has also given way to genre exercise. All the moneybags exchanged, heads bludgeoned and eye sockets stabbed with chopsticks are wearisome post-John Woo, Takeshi Kitano, Quentin Tarantino, “The Sopranos,” et al. The moral that hoodlums who abide by loyalty and principles are redeemable remains entirely suspect.

“Friend 2: The Legacy.” No MPAA rating. Running time: 2 hours, 4 minutes. At CGV Cinemas, Los Angeles, and Regal La Habra Stadium 16, La Habra.

[For the Record, 6:46 p.m. Dec. 13: An earlier version of the headline on this article incorrectly referred to this film as “Friends 2.”]