The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (South Korea, 2019)

“Don’t let the devil win!” reads the tag-line of Lee Won-Tae’s glossy thriller wherein a gangster and a loose cannon cop team-up to catch a serial killer.

Apparently based on a true story, the film is set in 2005 (indicated by various flip-phones and 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 victim 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 loudmouth police inspector Jung Tae-Seok (Kim Moo Yul). Jang is often seen amidst business negotiations and turf rivalries, usually settling things with his boulder-like fists, while Jung is a brash cop who refuses bribes and has keen detective skills as evidenced by the fact he is the only one to deduce that a serial killer is on the loose. 

Their workplace travails serve to show that the line between the criminal underworld and the authorities isn’t always so clear and it only gets murkier after Jang 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 Jang’s reputation as a feared gangster which is shredded by the rain and blood-soaked encounter. The only way to restore his image is to find his attacker and exact revenge. To do this, Jang teams up with Jung 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. It’s structured like a serial killer thriller but contains gangster politics while brawls breaks out amidst the business of running illegal gambling parlours. Then there are police procedural elements with squad rivalries and forensic matters involving crime scene investigator Cha Seo-Jin (Kim Gyu-Ri). The film slows at these more precise moments and picks up as the criminals battle but each part adds to the narrative layers and creates important details that keep the plot twisting, putting the audiences on tenterhooks as to whether the devil can be defeated. More satisfying than the police work is seeing how 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 as the “heroes” go to extreme lengths to catch the killer. 

The biggest thrills come from the action, which involves blades and fists, and is staged with flare typical of Korean cinema. The damage is visceral as people dance into and out of range of flurries of stabs and punches and in this aspect it is Ma 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 scene 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 has a 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 excitable version of Anton Chigurh from No Country for Old Men (2007).

This is writer/director Lee’s sophomore film and it shows a lot of confidence in staging. He is adept at inter-cutting between characters and moments. 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. There are the many fight scenes and foot chases that take place in the neon-lit streets and karaoke boxes of Cheonan city, which are kept coherent through tight editing. The highlight is a breakneck-speed chase through narrow alleys which brings the three characters together.

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 who will play the same role in a Hollywood remake that is coming courtesy of Sylvester Stallone’s Balboa Productions. See the original for a cool action fix.