Ma Dong-seok, aka Don Lee, is poised to become Hollywood’s next big international breakout. He’s already one of the most popular actors in South Korea with bonafide worldwide cinephile cache thanks to standout roles in Korean hits like The Good, the Bad and the Weird and Train to Busan, but with an MCU role in The Eternals on the horizon, he’s on track to reach a bigger audience than ever before. And then there’s The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil.
Sylvester Stallone’s production company already scooped up the 2019 South Korean thriller for an English-language remake, which will see the actor reprise his starring role as a crime lord who teams with a cop to bring down a serial killer. Ma stars as Jang Dong-soo, the titular gangster, who finds his criminal reign threatened when he’s randomly attacked by a serial killer called Z (Kim Sung-kyu). Determined to re-prove his status as the criminal underground’s top dog, Jang teams with the only cop in town who believes there’s a serial killer on the loose, an ambitious and hot-tempered young officer named Tae-suk (Kim Moon-yul).
Directed by Lee Won-Tae (The Magician), The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil is a stylish, good-looking piece of filmmaking, leaving behind the drab, grey-toned cityscapes that dominate too many modern thrillers in favor of a Neon Noir via the rich tradition of Korean thrillers. Spurred on by the worldwide success of contemporary visionaries like Park Chan-wook, Kim Jee-woon, and Bong Joon-ho, South Korea has become home to the what are almost universally recognized as the best thrillers of the 21st century. That puts The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil in the field with impossible competition, and while it doesn’t crack the top ranks of its peers, it’s still a gritty, engrossing thrill-ride with flourishes of artful, occasionally disturbing imagery. In an early highlight, we meet Jang through a concise and informative act of violence that immediately lets you know who this guy is, why you should be afraid of him, and why you might like him anyway.
Indeed, Ma is the main draw here and, in turn, his character is the most nuanced and intriguing of the bunch. Jang is a calm, confident king of the underworld, all sharp suits and unflappable steeliness with no qualms with his killer instinct, Jang’s always running the bottom line; even when he’s batting around some poor soul with his big mitts like a Tomcat toying with its kill. He’ll just as soon rip your teeth out as shake your hand, but he’s one of those classic stoic anti-heroes with a code; equal parts businessman and brute. Ma is one of the best gentle giants in the biz, gifted at contrasting his hulking strength with the tender-hearted charm that makes him so loveable in films like Train to Busan and the criminally underrated arm-wrestling drama Champion, and while Jang represents a harder, harsher turn for the actor, that radiant warmth still translates, even at its most muted.
That makes him an ideal contrast both “the Cop”, Tae-suk, whose own grey morality hedges on the side of the law, and for “the Devil,” aka Z, the serial killer with no morals, no social contracts, and a preference for knives over fists. Unfortunately, neither of the other title characters are as interesting or well-developed as Jang, hamstringing the film where some of its best moments should be. Balancing that trifecta would elevate The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, but as it stands, Z is an arch, over-familiar villain whose character never runs much deeper than “creepy” and never quite earns his title moniker as the Devil. Tae-suk fares better, a sort of renegade jeans and jacket cop who gets to walk into the film on a rock ‘n’ roll guitar riff, and Kim has game chemistry with Ma, but because he’s introduced as a fairly brutal man in his own right and never defined beyond his occupation, his descent into the criminal underworld never quite stirs up his hornet’s nest of conflicts.
That makes Ma the centerpiece attraction here, and that’s certainly entertaining enough. The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil is a film that could push harder and dig deeper, and there’s a better version of it nestled in the final film (hopefully that’s something the upcoming remake can capitalize on if it gets the right filmmakers.) But even without that fine-tuning, Lee delivers a thrilling crime actioner, bolstered by his eye for livening up the scene with pops of color, some brutal fight scenes, one very solid car chase, and another commanding performance from Ma.
The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil made its Quebec debut at the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival.