Udine 2024 Review: THE ROUNDUP: PUNISHMENT Wins One More Round in a Franchise Clinging to the Ropes

Editor, Asia; Hong Kong, China (@Marshy00)
Udine 2024 Review: THE ROUNDUP: PUNISHMENT Wins One More Round in a Franchise Clinging to the Ropes
It’s Beast Cop vs Bitcoin in the fourth instalment of Ma Dong-seok’s enduringly popular Roundup action franchise, as his hulking detective goes toe-to-toe with a tech-savvy crime syndicate looking to expand into crypto. Helmed by action director Heo Myeong-haeng, Ma’s long-time stunt double and the man behind his apocalyptic Netflix splatterfest Badland Hunters, The Roundup: Punishment understands precisely how to wring the very best out of its loveable lunk of a lead, through a series of expertly choreographed close-quarter throw downs interspersed with Ma’s signature brand of self-effacing humour.
The series, which began with 2017’s The Outlaws, sets itself apart from the endless procession of boiler-plate crime thrillers to emerge from Korea in recent years, by giving each instalment a uniquely international flavour. First it was Chinese gangsters encroaching on Seoul’s Garibong district, then in its 2022 sequel The Roundup, Detective Ma clashed with Son Suk-ku’s sadistic killer in Vietnam. 
Due to the exceptional box office success of that film, the franchise subsequently adopted the “Roundup” moniker for all subsequent chapters - internationally, at least. In Korea, the films are known simply as Crime City 1-4. Last year’s The Roundup: No Way Out saw Ma crack a Japanese criminal conspiracy back on home turf, while this time, its an online casino empire in the Philippines that provides the backdrop for another visceral spree of breathless stabbing and punching. 
Beyond its penchant for globetrotting, what raises the quality of Ma’s signature series is its deftly blended cocktail of extreme violence and broad humour. Franchise fans were left somewhat shortchanged last time out, when the sharper edges of the action appeared to have been smoothed over in favour of a more accessible mainstream approach. Fortunately, the razor blades are very much back on point, as Punishment reinstates the frenzied bloodletting, thanks in large part, one suspects, thanks to Heo’s preference for physical storytelling. 
Digital entrepreneur Chang Dong-cheol (Lee Dong-hwi) has been running an illegal online casino network remotely from Seoul, while his number one heavy Baek Chang-gi (Kim Moo-yul) overseas its day-to-day operations in the Philippines. As rival enterprises emerge, it falls to Baek to take them out, while Chang prepares for the imminent launch of his own crypto coin, devised to launder - and grow - the casino’s ill-gotten gains. Before long, Baek has grown impatient with his boss, who is growing richer by the day while Baek handles all of his dirty work, so the ruthless enforcer returns to Seoul, looking to carve out a bigger piece of the pie for himself. 
Ma and his team get wind of the operation after a Korean app developer is murdered in Manila. When the body is returned home, the victim’s mother confronts Ma and makes him swear to punish those responsible. To accomplish this, Ma is forced to join forces with the department’s Cyber Crimes Division, and collaborate with Lee Ju-bin’s digital expert. This soon exposes Ma’s total ignorance of all things technological, leading to a number of “hilarious” misunderstandings. 
Admittedly, the humour in Punishment is very hit and miss. Ma’s lovable lunkhead schtick has been milked pretty dry by this stage, and the already fairly flimsy script is at its weakest when attempting to milk another gag out of the fact that Ma doesn’t know about cloud storage. Fortunately, Park Ji-hwan’s bumbling small-time player Jang - a mainstay of the franchise - is brought back in an expanded role, and provides many of the film’s best laughs, not least when Ma grants him temporary status as an undercover agent. 
Where the film continues to punch above its weight, however, and why audiences continue to flock back to these films time and again, is for the hand-to-hand action, especially when that involves Ma punching suspects clear through walls, windows, or in this case, aircraft cabins. The fight sequences in Punishment are as good as anything in the series thus far. Heo clearly understands how to work with Ma’s size and exploit his hefty frame and clout to achieve maximum impact onscreen. 
Once again, Ma’s primary adversary is his physical opposite. Kim Moo-yul, who starred alongside Ma in the under-seen 2019 crime thriller The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is swift, wiry, and merciless with a concealed blade. This juxtaposition of size and speed continues to bear fruit for the franchise, which otherwise rarely strays into anything resembling new territory. 
By no means the standout of the series, Punishment delivers a swift uppercut of improvement following the soft-touch misstep of No Way Out. With news filtering through that Ma has made plans for at least eight of these films in what he envisions as Korea’s very own Fast & Furious franchise, even diehards will be praying for his team to start stirring the creative pot soon if we are to remain entertained. As it stands, Punishment just about manages to duck in under the wire, if only by running on the fumes and goodwill of its predecessors, and for the sheer joy of watching a big bloke destroy bad guys with a single punch.
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