After a quarter century, legendary South Korean movie star Choi Min-sik (Oldboy) makes his return to the small screen in the addictive crime series Big Bet. Helmed by Kang Yoon-sung (The Outlaws), this K-drama is a decades-spanning saga telling the life story of Cha Moosik (Choi) – a man who has hit rock bottom several times only to rise to even greater heights.
Big Bet begins in the present with Moosik at the peak of his success as a billionaire casino mogul in the Philippines. Things take a sudden turn when the tycoon is arrested by the Manila police as the prime suspect for an long unsolved murder case. Despite the seriousness of the charge and the humiliation of being tarred as a criminal, Moosik is unfazed. After all, as he informs the audience in his narration, he’s used to beating insurmountable odds. Moosik a man who gambles on himself, and in spite of humbling losses along the way, his house always wins.
We flash back to Moosik’s impoverished upbringing in a rural orphanage in the ’70s, where he first developed his hustler instincts. From catching and selling insects to traditional medical practitioners, to wagering on rock-paper-scissors games for his first taste of fried chicken, the boy knew how to look for angles. We learn that Moosik was abandoned because his father, a small-time gangster, was imprisoned, forcing his poor mother to earn a living as a menial laborer elsewhere. When his mother has saved up enough and his father is released, Moosik returns to live with them in the city.
While his pop was an abusive brute, Moosik does credit him for some harsh life lessons: first, the thick-skin and toughness to survive a cruel world of bullies and thugs, and second, tricks of the trade in the illegal gambling den his dad ran. As an adult, Moosik’s first rags-to-riches rise begins when he teams with old friends from school and the orphanage to open a franchise of underground casino bars. His savvy handling of this illicit venture makes him a multi-millionaire, but his winning streak comes to an abrupt halt when tax officers raid his properties, apprehend his partners, and seize his assets.
The second episode picks up with Moosik fleeing to the Philippines where he’s forced to start from scratch – this time in legitimate casinos instead. Hoping to turn the tide, Moosik gambles away the small fortune he managed to smuggle out over a span of a few months. Not only is he broke once more and dangerously deep in debt, his family is also being hounded by the authorities back home, while his ex-associates testify against him for lighter sentences. Moosik may be in the hole, but as we’ve seen, the street-smart comeback king always has another ace up his sleeve.
The most striking aspects of Big Bet are heavily inspired by a trio of Martin Scorsese masterpieces. Stylistically, the show borrows from Goodfellas a fair bit, with its fourth wall-breaking monologues, post-arrest narration of the protagonist’s origin story, and single-take shots introducing us to the seductively glamorous world of crime. Narratively, Big Bet is obviously reminiscent of Casino. Tonally, the series recalls The Irishman, another era-bridging flashback tale told from the perspective of an older underworld figurehead that also used de-aging technology to help its star play the same character through the decades. While all this might sound derivative, if you need to borrow, why not take from the best?
Big Bet’s greatest strength is undoubtedly its talented cast, which also includes Sohn Seokgu (D.P.), Heo Sungtae (Squid Game) and Lee Donghwi (Extreme Job). Their uniformly superb performances help smooth over some of the show’s teething issues. And its great leading man proves why he remains South Korea’s most magnetic screen presence. Choi admirably pulls off the subtle changes in mannerisms and physicality that come with playing the same character from his 30s to 60s. While the flashback structure may rob the series of some dramatic suspense (we already know Moosik will triumph over his past hardships), it’s easy to get swept up in Big Bet’s brisk pace and engaging story. Ultimately, this a gripping but uneven start to a series that has the potential to be a royal flush when all its cards are revealed.
Big Bet premieres on Disney+ today (December 21)