The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil
Release Date: May 15th, 2019
Duration: 110 mins.
Director: Lee Won-Tae
Writer: Lee Won-Tae (Screenplay),
Starring: Ma Dong-Seok, Kim Moo-Yul, Kim Sung-Kyu, Yoo Seung-Mok, Choi Min-Chul, Kim Yoon-Sung, Heo Dong-Won, Oh Hee-Joon, Kim Gyu-Ri,
“Don’t let the devil win!” reads the tag-line of the film and it’s down to two bad guys to catch the worst man in this glossy thriller where a gangster and a loose-cannon of a cop team up to catch a serial killer.
Apparently based on a true story, the film is set in 2005/6 (best shown by the flip-phones and stubby cameras) and opens with the Devil (Kim Sung-Kyu) cruising the streets of Cheonan city looking for a victim for his murderous impulses. We see his M.O. of rear-ending cars on lonely roads and viciously knifing the unsuspecting driver when pretending to check on their safety. The narrative then shuffles him into the background to quickly sketch out the rivalry between two rogues, hulking gang boss Jang Dong-Su (Ma Dong-Seok aka Don Lee) and loud-mouth Detective Jung Tae-Seok (Kim Moo Yul). Jang Dong-Su is seen amidst business negotiations and turf rivalries, usually settling things with his boulder-like fists, while Jung Tae-Seok is a brash character who refuses bribes and has keen detective skills as evidenced by the fact he is the only one to sense that a serial killer is on the loose.
Their workplace travails play out to show the line between the criminal underworld and the cops isn’t so clear and it is something only guaranteed to get murkier after Jang Dong-Su is violently attacked by the killer on a rainy night. It’s a nervy fight as the mobster battles back from repeated stabbings and barely escapes with his life. What doesn’t survive is his reputation as a feared gangster which is shredded by the killer. The only way to restore his image is to find his attacker and exact revenge and to do this Jang teams up with Jung Tae-Seok to find the assailant who they name “K”.
Having morally compromised characters chase someone pure evil is hardly new territory with Na Hong-Jin’s 2008 film The Chaser coming to mind but while that film resolutely remained grim viewing writer/director Lee Won-Tae’s film ducks and dives between genres with a breathless ease. The film is built like a serial-killer thriller but contains a gangster politics with every big brawl that breaks out amidst the business of running illegal gambling parlours and then there will be elements of a police procedural with squad rivalries and forensic shenanigans involving crime scene investigator Cha Seo-Jin (Kim Gyu-Ri from Memento Mori). Sometimes the film slows at these more precise moments but the narrative layers add important details to keep the plot twisting and to keep audiences on tenterhooks as to whether the devil can be defeated. More satisfying than the police work is seeing how Detective Jung is forced to use Jang’s gangster resources to track down the killer which leads to some funny culture clash moments as police and mobsters team up. Everything meshes together well to vary the tone and keep the audience guessing what will happen next as the “heroes” go to extreme lengths to catch the killer.
The biggest thrills come with moments of extreme action staged with flare typical of Korean cinema in fights involving blades and fists. The damage is very visceral as people dance into and out of range of flurries of stabs and punches and in this aspect it is Ma Dong-Seok who makes the biggest impact. Audiences will probably be most aware of him from Train to Busan (2016) in which his tough and noble character clears out carriages of zombies. Here he plays the bad guy with a sense of honour and does a great job of showing how his character has to calculatedly channel every fibre of his being into the persona of a mob boss to maintain his reputation and stay in control. His massive physicality is a screen-stealing plus as he gets into frequent fights and dominates proceedings, literally swatting opponents out of the air as if they were flies at times. Not even doors stop him from punching in the face of a target in the film’s most satisfying fight. Kim Moo Yul provides a fun and sparky counterpart and their rough-and-tumble and blackly comic dynamic adds a lot of fizz-bang flavour. Kim Sung-Kyu’s serial killer is more lightly sketched although he does have an air of menace as he physically comes off a little like a younger and more active version of Anton Chigurh from the film No Country for Old Men (2007).
This is writer/director Lee Won-Tae’s sophomore film and it shows a lot of confidence and panache in staging. He is adept at inter-cutting between characters and there are the occasional notable long takes as the camera moves in and out of the crime scene and we see detective Jung demonstrate his skills and then there are the many fight scenes and foot chases that take place in the neon-lit streets and karaoke boxes of Cheonan city but the real highlight is a breakneck-speed and car chase through narrow alleys involving the three characters.
Korean filmmakers often have the canny ability to sneak some social commentary into their films but not here. This is more of a popcorn film and in that regards it succeeds thanks to the bravura lead performance from Ma Dong-Seok who steals scenes in the more energetic action sequences. A Hollywood remake is coming soon courtesy of Sylvester Stallone’s Balboa Productions and that involves Ma Dong-Seok. See the original and for a cool action fix.
My review was first published on VCinema on June 08th.