Badass, gunfighter, adventurer, good-looking, and a symbolic representation of the freedom we hope to have – are some of the most pronounced characteristics of the outlaw hero. Viewers and readers alike are drawn to them; to an extent of desiring to be them and live their lives. The American cinematic culture as well as the American Literature in general constituted for the most part of this tradition of narrating stories that involve this type of character. Through the years, this tradition has extended its influence to other cultures outside America. Today, we see a lot of stories that tread on the adventures of this type of hero; recently, in South Korea’s two of the highest rated TV dramas during their airing.
What exactly is an Outlaw Hero?
An outlaw hero is someone who has complete knowledge of right and wrong but chooses to work outside of the law and above it. Famous examples of this archetype are Robin Hood, Jesse James, Captain Jack Sparrow, Zorro, Huckleberry Finn and even Aladdin and the Avengers. All these characters operated above the law and have lived lifestyles in that nature. For a character to operate above the law does not necessarily mean that they are evil and they are the villains of the narrative.
They were characterized as such because the society that they are in is pictured as oppressive, exploitative, and the ultimate evil. So, to combat that, these heroes deviate from the dictates of society and live lives like that of an outlaw. The heroic outlaw offers a seemingly private standard of the law that is defined or achieved naturally. So, by defying the existing politics, the outlaw hero seeks to ‘correct’ these socially unjust laws with his or her own individual judgment. Since the law is portrayed as the tool of villains, it purports the idea that these heroes do not have access to the legal system, thus creating some sort of justified morality with their actions.
The Outlaw Hero in Korean Drama
Early this year we have seen two of the most popular Korean dramas that employed this hero archetype – TvN’s Vincenzo and SBS’s Kim Do Ki in Taxi Driver. These two dramas are structured in a way that fits perfectly to the definition and characterization of an outlaw hero defined above – a hero that combats social norms and systems by operating above the law. Both dramas picture the current justice system as skewed, manipulated, corrupted, and exploitative. So, to correct this, the hero goes all the way by circumnavigating the law and extracting justice through his own methods and judgments.
Vincenzo Cassano in “Vincenzo”
The mafia consigliere’s story sure is a story of an outlaw hero. Vincenzo Cassano, played by Song Joong Ki, used his mafia abilities to topple down the greater evil present in society. Him being in the mafia alone is a clear manifestation of being an outlaw as this organization works by evading and manipulating the justice system to suit their needs. We have seen how Vincenzo used mafia-like tactics in court to pindown his enemies. Him being evil to vanquish evil is the drama’s justification of his character. We rooted for him regardless that we know, at the back of our minds, that he committed some heinous crimes that should be brought to justice as well. But since the story pictured the society as the greater evil, with other people in power pulling the strings, his actions became in a way justifiable which made the drama appealing to the viewers as made true by the ratings it got especially the finale which garnered its all-time high with 14.636%.
Kim Do Ki in “Taxi Driver”
Kim Do Ki is another outlaw hero introduced in Taxi Driver. His character structure is similar to that of Vincenzo albeit some motivations of their characters differed from their pasts and present situations. Kim Do Ki, played by Lee Je Hoon, became the beacon of the oppressed for revenge. He and his team defied the dictates of the law to punish criminals. By putting justice in his hands and helping those who cannot seek justice on their own and cannot rely on the justice system, he became an outlaw hero.
The drama justified his character by showing the loopholes of the system; that the police are not doing their job right, that the condition of the statutory limitations of the law does not favor the wrongfully accused. So, a hero like Kim Do Ki has to take things in his hands and correct these supposed glitches in society. Just like Vincenzo, Taxi Driver became a strong drama in South Korea with a highest rating of 16%.
What makes these heroes so appealing to the viewers is the fact that we can relate and identify ourselves to them. Vincenzo and Kim Do Ki are not perfect characters. They possess their own traumas, sadness, and dark pasts. These characterizations allow them to be more human, thus, allowing us to identify with them. Kim Do Ki was a victim of a criminal. Vincenzo was abandoned by his mother. These flaws make their character seem real and relatable for who amongst us did not feel or experienced what they feel, right?
Moreover, these flaws and human frailties are taken into the next level as these became one of their driving forces to be the beacon of justice for others. Vincenzo and Kim Do Ki represent the persona of what we hope to be. We too want fast justice. We too want to be removed from the oppression of society. We too want to end injustices around us. These outlaw heroes, by working outside the law, proves the idea as to how volatile the system is and how easy it could be for us to be manipulated and exploited by those pulling the strings. By structuring the hero this way, the story gives us some amount of hope that the world can be better and we can be the hero of our own story.
The outlaw hero is a character that I feel is not leaving the screens or literary narratives any time soon. It’s motivation and purpose as well as its conflicting morals are what makes this hero appealing that’s why the outlaw hero recurs in narratives. The amount of familiarity the audience has to these heroes is what makes the outlaw hero bankable in dramas. For as long as society remains the same, characters like Vincenzo and Kim Do Ki will reappear in stories and on the screen.