Actor Ma Dong-seok has carved an eviable niche in South Korean cinema as a kind of all-round hybrid tough guy/sympathetic everyman, thanks mainly to his turn as the working class hero of Train to Busan. He’s also a rising star in the U.S., where he made his mark as a physical trainer to American action actors and goes by the name Don Lee (he holds dual citizenship). The Gangster, et al, has been pegged by fanboys as probably his most enjoyable role, and while it’s supposedly loosely based on a true story, it’s hard not to imagine the movie was written and produced with his peculiar skills set in mind. I don’t know much about the movie’s box office in South Korea, but apparently it impressed Sylvester Stallone enough to buy the Hollywood rights and hire Ma to recreate his character in English.
Ma plays mob boss Jang Dong-su, who runs a successful underground gambling operation in the city of Cheonan. Though he seems a fairly reasonable type as mob bosses go, we meet him as he’s practicing his boxing moves with a bag, which, it turns out, contains a man who obviously got on his wrong side. Jang, who has paid off the local constabulary, is negotiating with a potential rival to lease his tech knowhow to the rival’s business, and when push comes to shove, Jang shows that he knows when to use bloody violence to make a point. Meanwhile, a serial killer (Kim Sung-kyu) is stalking male drivers whom he rear-ends on back streets and then, while trading insurance information, savagely stabs them to death. At first, the police don’t connect certain dots, but the usual loose cannon detective, Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo-yul), the kind who can’t be bought and thinks he’s ten times smarter than his superiors, has connected them but he can’t convince his colleagues that the string of murders that have occurred in the past several weeks are the work of the same person; that is, until one rainy night when the killer happens to target Jang, who, despite his bigger bulk and better reflexes, barely gets away with his life. When Jung hears about the hospitalized Jang he tries to make a deal — they work together to catch the killer. At first, Jang wants no part of this crazy cop because, 1) he doesn’t want to be any more beholden to the police than he already is, and 2) the news that he was almost killed on the street has badly hurt his reputation in the underworld, where everybody is looking to take over your position. The only way to regain that kind of respect is to get his own revenge.
The ensuing plot finds the three titular stereotypes circling one another in their own orbits until they gravitate so close that the inevitable fission occurs, and director Lee Won-tae knows how to balance bone-crunchingly violent action scenes with smooth thriller exposition. Though there’s nothing particularly original about the movie, Ma carries his ringer bona fides like a champ. Jang’s sympathetic side doesn’t have to be revealed through any kind of soppy back story or scenes of him petting his dog. He bears his humanity with class and, in fact, seems like a decent employer, given his occupation and the amount of hurt he can bring down on people. If the movie lacks anything it’s a counter-leveling female presence (the killer, for once, only targets men of a certain age). This is a resolutely macho movie, though you could say that Ma at least flattens the curve. Let’s hope Stallone knows what to do with him.
In Korean. Now playing Cinemart Shinjuku (03-5369-2831).
The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil home page in Japanese.
photo (c) 2019 Kiwi Media Group & B.A. Entertainment