A gangster and a cop team up to catch a killer. Can they trust each other long enough to pull it off?
“Our dicks may be many, but we have one heart!”
Korean serial killer films are gradually becoming one of my favourite genres. From Kim Jee-woon’s I Saw the Devil to last year’s LEAFF opener Dark Figure of Crime, there’s something to Korean cinema’s style that seems to lend itself to the cat and mouse dynamics that accompany these kinds of films. Watching a police detective resort to less-than-clean methods to get what they want is also something of a common trope in Korea – see my review of The Shameless for more on this – so going into Lee Won-tae’s thriller The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil I had my expectations very high.
Jung Tae-suk is a detective in Cheonan who likes to antagonise the local gangsters, much to the annoyance of local crime lord Jang (Ma Dong-seok). While investigating the murder of a man, he comes to the conclusion that this – as well as a number of other supposedly unrelated stabbings – might be the work of a serial killer. His boss, however, won’t allow him to investigate further. One night, while Jang is driving, his car is hit and he is attacked by serial killer Kang (Kim Sung-kyu). When Jung hears of this, he approaches Jang and suggests the two pool their resources together to catch him.
We’ve seen cops team up with criminals before, and the clash of ideals at play usually makes for some really good buddy cop-style moments. Both Jung and Jang play by their own set of rules, but they have rules and it’s in the wake of the murders caused by this chaotic being that forces them to team up. By introduction a greater evil, the two leads find common ground, and the moments of humour that come from this help mellow out some of the more brutal and violent scenes in the film.
Some may find issues with the tonal shifts at play here, and I’m reminded of Bong Joon-ho’s excellent Memories of Murder for doing something similar, but I found the funny moments surprisingly refreshing. When so many crime thrillers of its ilk are so grim and dark, it’s fun to be able to enjoy the light hearted moments while also appreciating the stakes. In its lead character the movie explores themes of corruption and aggression in the police force that we’ve seen in a number of similar Korean crime films. But Jung is the sort of character who isn’t so easily swayed by criminals. By keeping he and Jang at opposing mortalities the film allows itself to mine more material from its frankly hugely entertaining premise.
Kim Mu-yeol does a great job as the cocky but talented cop, and his arrogance tends to get in the way of his police work. But it’s in Ma Dong-seok, who has gone from strength to strength since his breakout performance in Train to Busan, that Gangster finds its firepower. He steals every scene he’s in, smirking and punching his way through obstacles and stands imposing over the rest of the cast. He’s perfectly cast as the tough but complex mob boss.
If there’s a weak link, it would probably be in Kang himself. While Kim Sung-kyu does a good job playing this twisted guy, laughing through beatings and skulking in shadows, his character is never really given much depth. I understand that not everyone has motivation to do what they do, but when Jung and Jang are such rich, humorous characters it’s only a shame that the third part of your title is as flat as this. But it doesn’t do much if anything to ruin the experience, which is that of an equally tense, funny, violent and gorgeously with not as many clichés as I would have expected.
Verdict: The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil is hugely entertaining. Well worth catching.
Overall entertainment: 8.5/10
Ending: Silly, but I liked it
Gift certificates: A lucrative industry?
The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil (2019)
Also known as: 악인전 Ak-in-jeon (lit. Villain Story)
Director: Lee Won-tae
Writer: Lee Won-tae
Ma Dong-seok – Jang Dong-soo
Kim Mu-yeol – Jung Tae-suk
Kim Sung-kyu – Kang Kyung-ho
Heo Dong-won – Choi Moon-sik