The top-grossing film so far in South Korea this year, Lee Sang-yong’s followup to the 2017 crime thriller The Outlaws does not, as the saying goes, mess with the formula, which in this case focuses on what the producers call the “beast cop,” Ma Seok-do, a burly, unworldly, intuitive police detective whose effectiveness is all in his fists. This a guy who invariably gets into fights with the criminals he tries to arrest and always beats the shit out of them—a cinematic m.o. that logic should tell us would be a dead end, since we know the outcome of every bloody battle. Then again, we almost always know the outcome in these sorts of conventional crime films, regardless of which country they’re from. It’s just that Korean cop movies are less hesitant about exploiting those expectations. Moreover, in Ma Dong-seok (or Don Lee, if you prefer his Hollywood moniker), the franchise has charisma to burn, even if the character he plays would seem to represent the worst qualities of the South Korean police force.
This aspect becomes all the more apparent when Detective Ma, along with his somewhat hapless superior, Capt. Jeon Il-man (Choi Gwi-hwa), are sent to Vietnam to escort a Korean fugitive back home after he mysteriously gives himself up to the South Korean embassy. I’m not sure if the Vietnamese authorities appreciate that Ma (who wrote the story for the film) and Lee make the country look like a lawless frontier teeming with foreign gangsters, but, then again, I wonder if the South Korean police appreciate how the cops in this movie treat every suspect like a punching bag. In any case, Ma can’t quite fathom why this relatively low-level crook is practically begging to be arrested and returned to jail in Seoul and eventually strongarms the truth out of him—a rival gangster who preys on Korean tourists has threatened his life. Once Ma extrajudiciously hunts down this bad guy, Kang Hae-sang (Son Sukku), who has kidnapped the son of a rich loan company executive for ransom, he sets off a chain reaction of brutal retributive violence that reaches back to Korea.
The violence, in fact, gets to be a bit too much, but that is the movie’s selling point. What keeps it from falling into the realm of the totally absurd is the integrity of the script, where the smallest plot detail is reasoned and justified and even the requisite car chase has a logical flow that makes complete sense within the context of the story. Ma, of course, sells himself wholesale with his often clueless grasp of social niceties set against a clear understanding of the moral stakes, and it’s obvious the movie wouldn’t have been half as entertaining with someone else in the lead. Ma the actor really is an international goldmine.
In Korean and English. Now playing in Tokyo at Toho Cinemas Nihonbashi (050-6868-5060), Toho Cinemas Hibiya (050-6868-5068), Toho Cinemas Shinjuku (050-6868-5063), Toho Cinemas Roppongi Hills (050-6868-5024).
The Roundup home page in Japanese
photo (c) ABO Entertainment Co., Ltd & Bigpunch Pictures & Hong Film & B.A. Entertainment Corp.