Cannes 2019 Review: THE GANGSTER, THE COP, THE DEVIL, Ma Dong-seok Pummels His Way through Rip-Roaring Korean Thriller
The gangster drama and serial killer thriller join hands and chow down on steroids in the by-the-numbers but thoroughly enjoyable and gleefully violent Cannes midnight selection The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil. Burly Korean leading man and future MCU actor Ma Dong-seok (Train to Busan), who also goes by his American name Don Lee, is all brawn, quips and glares as the gangster of the title, while Kim Moo-yeol (Forgotten) and Kim Seong-gyu (Kingdom) share the spotlight as a thug-hating cop and a senseless killer (devil) they must team up to take down.
Ma plays Jang Dong-su, the tough boss of a gang of a small town a short drive way from Seoul. One evening he is the victim of a simple fender bender, but when the other driver steps out his car brandishing a knife a routine exchange of insurance details turns into a fight to the death. Dong-su succeeds in fighting off his assailant but winds up in hospital with multiple stab wounds and a bruised ego. Detective Jung, who despises the criminal underworld hears word of Dong-su's attack and believes it follows the M.O. of a vicious serial killer known only as K who has been terrorizing the area. Fearful of his reputation, Dong-su goes after the killer himself but before long, two men of opposite sides of the tracks decide to pool their resources.
What this sophomore outing from Man of Will director Lee Won-tae lacks in subtlety it makes up for in the simplistic but timeless thrills of seeing charismatic men beating each other senseless. Ma's gang boss is introduced working the bag in his private gym and as he grunts his orders to an underling each of his swings lands with a resounding thud and a close-up on the bag. The clincher comes when the workout, conversation and scene come to an end, and the bag is unzipped to reveal the bloody form of some poor sap who dared to cross him.
Lee's formulaic narrative is peppered with several such beefed-up Korean thriller tropes, and it's these moments of bone-crunching levity, as well as a comparatively svelte 100-minute running time that allow The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil to stand out from the more generic offerings of Korea's commercial thriller scene.
There's no question that the key draw here is Ma, who, despite incarnating a violent gang boss, remains a lovable rogue that audiences can't help but root for. Among his recent performances, the caricatured Dong-su falls somewhere between his slightly more richly drawn amoral cop in The Outlaws and Unstoppable's former gangster-turned-vengeful street pugilist.
Kim Moo-yeol brings a cocky and nervy swagger to his Detective Jung, while Kim Seong-gyu embodies evil as the deranged K whose bloodlust only seems to grown as the net cast by the unlikely gangster-cop alliance tightens around him.
The simple but effective conceit at the heart of this rip-roaring cocktail of the most recognizable tropes of Korean thrillers has already prompted a remake deal, for an English-language project to be produced by Sylvester Stallone's shingle which will see Ma reprise his role.