The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil
Digital/VOD (Distributor: Vertigo Releasing) Running Time: 110 minutes approx.
The title of this violent Korea thriller could almost be the start of a joke that continues “walk into a bar” but there isn’t much at laugh at here, at least not intentionally. This tale of a sociopathic serial killer uniting the right and wrong side of the law is no laughing matter.
It’s 2005 and a number of murders are occurring in Seoul, usually drivers found in their cars having been stabbed to death. Police detective Jung Tae-suk (Kim Mu-yeol) is sent to the crime scene but instead chooses to raid a game arcade owned by gangster Jang Dong-soo (Ma Dong-seok) to torment him, because Tae-Suk knows his superior An Ho-Bong (Yoo Seung-Mok) is in Dong-soo’s pocket.
Later that night, Dong-soo is driving home from a meeting with rival gangster Heo Sang-Do (Yoo Jae-Myung) when he is attacked by the serial killer (Kim Sung-Kyu). Dong-soo fights him off but is left badly injured. Dong-soo wants revenge but Tae-Suk wants to catch the killer too, so they strike a deal to work together to hunt the killer down but whoever finds him first gets to deal with him their way.
Actually, the plot is far more involved than the above précis implies, as it should be with gangsters and serial killers involved though it’s not that complicated to follow. Director Lee Won-tae has crafted a very busy script, based on real events, of two diametrically and philosophically opposed factions – the criminals and the police – coming together to seal the fate of a provocative third party to test their moral boundaries.
Korean thrillers are noted for their extreme violence and twisting of ethical behaviour to suit a narrative where good and bad tend to overlap with grisly, far-reaching results, and this second feature from Lee is no exception. As is usually the case, nothing is as clear-cut as it appears, thus the audience is asked to root for people with dubious character flaws because they are the lesser of two evils, and as usual, we do just that.
He may carry a police badge and ardently upholds the law, but Tae-suk is not beyond throwing his weight around to get results, adopting a “fight fire with fire” attitude when dealing with criminals. Dong-soo is comparably restrained in terms of energy but he is a far more intense man. When we first see him, he is walloping the hell out of a punch bag which is unzipped to reveal a bloodied man inside it.
Exemplifying the old adage “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, Dong-soo and Tae-suk put their differences aside in the name of justice. But Dong-soo throws a spanner in the works – when he is first attacked and left for dead, his men believe Sang-Do was behind it and exact revenge by killing some of his men, only learning otherwise after Dong-Soo recovers.
But before making the deal with Tae-suk, Dong-soo has Sang-Do killed with the killer’s knife to make it look like he had struck again. However, the killer, knowing Dong-so is there, brazenly shows up at Sang-Do’s funeral, giving a note to Sang-Do’s number two saying it was his knife but he isn’t the killer, dropping a sizeable hint as to who it might have been.
The amount of combustible elements in the story should make it feel overcooked but Lee is able to give sufficient time to each plot thread so one doesn’t encroach on the other, partly from being cleverly intertwined through revolving around the same axis. Whether the law is bent, broken, or adhered to, everything is systematic in bringing the killer to justice, making for a fascinating dichotomy in the opposite ends of the criminal spectrum sharing similar working practices.
As for the killer, he is left as an enigma with barely anything revealed about him thus his motives are thinly delineated. The only thing clear about him is there is no ambiguity about his evilness, whereas even Dong-soo and his gangster brethren adhere to a code of honour. If it weren’t for Kim Sung-Kyu’s chillingly portrayal, investing us in seeing him getting his comeuppance, he would be too flimsy an antagonist for this story.
Many of the film’s beats and rhythms are beholden to the tried and tested template of Korean thrillers that make them such eminently watchable fair even when they don’t exactly break the mould. In other words, everything you would expect from the genre is here – gruesome killings, manic car chases, big fights and complete disregard for public and personal safety.
Lee Won-tae’s direction therefore shows signs of being noticeably mindful of these genre expectations but is canny enough to add occasional touches of his own to avoid being completely generic. The camerawork is precise, many shot compositions are sublimely artistic, and the editing sharp and observant of the pacing when fitting this sprawling story into 110 minutes.
Earlier I mentioned some unintentional humour – this is courtesy of Ma Dong-seok, who is brutally threatening as Dong-soo but a little too indestructible. He is stabbed and beaten throughout the film – often by multiple men at a time – yet is strong enough to punch THROUGH a thick wooden door to pound a man into oblivion. I don’t think Lee wanted us to laugh at this but we do.
Kim Mu-yeol as Tae-suk is also portrayed as a superhuman fighting machine, getting into his fair share of scraps which ultimately ruin the credibility of knife wielding Korean gangsters as tough guys if he can lay waste to them either on his own or with help from Dong-soo. Kim brings the verve and attitude; sometimes cocky and smart mouthed but always focused and just.
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil delivers everything one could possibly want from a Korean thriller and not be disappointed, proving there is still room in an over saturated field for well made, intensely brutal additions to reaffirm why we love them in the first place.
Rating – ****
Man In Black