In a strange way, watching a mediocre Korean thriller is almost as exhilarating as watching any of the legitimately great ones the country’s film industry continues to churn out — it’s wild to see how standards have gotten high enough that even a rambunctious serial killer saga with an ingenious premise and a swaggering Ma Dong-seok performance can still feel like something of a disappointment.
Such is the case with Lee Won-tae’s “The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil,” a giddy little bruiser that might feel like more of a refreshing kick to the chest if not for how much tamer it is than “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” or how poor the plotting is when compared to a recent crime saga like 2013’s riveting “New World” (to name just two of the many superior movies that also happen to boast Ma’s barrel-chested charm). So while it’s tempting to go easy on this frequently electric film, and forgive it for not living up to its full potential, the most satisfying thing about Lee’s spotty underworld adventure is the sense that we’ve been conditioned to expect better.
If would help if the first 20 minutes of “The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil” didn’t make you brace for a modern classic. Set in the summer of 2005, and (sort of) based on some actual murders that took place around that time, Lee’s script reassembles the disembodied scraps of this morbid history into a conceit that cleverly blurs the thin blue line between cops and criminals. On one side of things we have Jung Tae-suk (Kim Moo-yeol), a trigger-happy police officer in a country where even the long arm of the law isn’t allowed to hold a pistol in its hand. Young, restless, and always looking to get ahead — think Martin Riggs meets Lupin III — Jung isn’t quite crooked, but he’s willing to bend a little when the mood strikes or he gets bored in traffic.
That makes him a huge pain in the ass for mob boss Jang Dong-soo (Ma), who can’t pay off a cop who’s only interested in getting a promotion. Jang is a rusty tank of a man who has his own ideas of justice — the scar-faced don is introduced in a scene where he beats on a punching bag with a guy inside of it; he later squashes an underworld squabble by ripping out a henchman’s teeth with his bare fingers and forcing a rival to drink them — and his power is tethered to his well-known penchant for violence. The only person in town who hasn’t been taught to fear a guy like Jang is K (Kim Sung-kyu), a handsome young serial killer who drives behind his random victims, nudges the bumper of their car, and then shivs them to death when they get out to inspect the damage.
When K runs into Jang, it’s hard to say which of them is having the unluckier night. Jang’s body survives the attack — he’s too beefy and boisterous to be felled by a little shard of scrap metal — but his reputation is suddenly on life support. The other gangsters in the area falsely assume that Jang was the target of a mob hit gone wrong, and they can smell the wounded don’s weakness from a mile away. The only way Jang can reassert his strength is to catch K, kill him dead, and scatter his body parts around the city for all to see. But he can’t do it alone. He’ll have to team up with Jung, the only local cop who’s actually convinced that all the recent murders are the work of one man. Jung wants a collar, and Jang wants a corpse, but they both know they need to catch K before they can decide what to do with him. “It’s a filthy world,” Jang says, and there’s no use pretending the stains won’t smudge together.
In broad strokes, this premise has already been explored to death, but “The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil” breathes new life into it by elevating at least two of its three major characters far above their archetypes. The wet and neon-washed city streets might reek of Michael Mann, and the cheesy guitar licks of Jo Yeong-wook’s annoyingly intrusive score might sound like a hot mess of sub-Duran Duran power chords that have clodded together (a rare misstep for the genius composer responsible for “The Handmaiden”), but Lee’s film is able to muscle its way through most of its aesthetic shortcomings on the power of its personalities.
Ma is ultra-lovable as the gangster with a heart of …well, not gold, but perhaps a blood-tarnished bronze. The burly Korean-American star, so good in the crossover hit “Train to Busan,” is a rumpled force of nature as a mob boss who’s forced to become a caricature of himself in order to save face in front of his rivals; you almost expect that you’d find pinstripes tattooed along his skin if Jang ever took off his “Guys and Dolls” costume. All it takes is a twitch of Ma’s upper lip or a puff of his cheeks to convey the fragility of Jang’s power, and how threatened he feels by the oblivious serial killer who’s put his empire in jeopardy. Not since “Heat” has a movie so implicitly understood that the robbers have more skin in the game than the cops; that crime is an existence, but police work is just a job.
And Lee is smart enough to let Jang outshine Jung — just enough to show how urgent this is for the crime lord. Both men put themselves in harm’s way and get involved in all the chaotic fisticuffs that come with the territory of being in a Korean thriller, but only Jang kicks down a karaoke bar door, traps someone under it, and then beats the shit out of them by punching directly through the wood. On a related note: It’s worth noting that movies are often a lot more inventive when they can’t rely on guns to shoot their way out of a scene.
It’s the less animated moments where “The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil” struggles. Lee’s inexplicable focus on inter-office squabbles distracts from the rich dynamic between Jang and Jung, and the fun of forcing their respective lackeys to interact (the film peaks when the gangsters bond with the cops by explaining that “our dicks may be many, but we have one heart!”). And while it’s bad enough that the convoluted bureaucratic element sucks the life out of things between set pieces, the worst part of it is that it leaves “the devil” with nothing to do but skulk around and wait to get caught.
Kim cuts a menacing presence in the role of K, but there’s nothing under his sharp homicidal scowl — no rhyme or reason or anything else. K is just an excuse to pair Jang and Jung together, but Lee does everything in his power to keep them apart before ending things with a Hail Mary pass for meaning (something about the mutability of moral codes) in the final moments. The only meaning here is the meaning that Ma provides, and the message that he’s a major star comes through loud and clear. Just ask Sylvester Stallone: His company is currently producing an American remake of “The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil,” and Ma has already been hired to reprise his role. Best of all, the standards for crime thrillers are a hell of a lot lower on this part of the planet.
“The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil” will be released in theaters by Well Go USA on June 7.