NZIFF 51 – Film Review: The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil

For fans of South Korean television, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil will serve nicely as a feature-length spiritual companion to the 2014 and 2017 series Bad Guys and Bad Guys 2 (Nappeun Nyeoseokdeul and Nappeun Nyeoseokdeul: Akui Doshi) which shares a similar premise and features many of the film’s lead actors in similar roles.

The old adage ‘the enemy of my enemy is my friend’ acts as the foundation for director Leo Won-tae’s film to build upon, with the lavishly dressed and physically barbarous gangster, Jang Dong-soo (Train to Busan and Bad Guys powerhouse Ma Dong-seok) teaming up with hot-headed, audacious detective Jung Tae-suk (Kim Mu-yeol) to locate and capture a prolific and elusive serial killer.

The film opens with the first of many casual, arbitrary murders by the callously detached Kang Kyung-ho (Kim Sung-kyu), before introducing Jung Tae-suk as he confronts groups of gangsters and steamrolls his way into an underground gambling club owned by feared hyungnim, Jang Dong-soo. While investigating the film’s opening crime scene, Tae-suk believes the culprit is a serial killer, responsible for numerous random attacks throughout the city’s districts. Although initially delayed due to corruption within the police force, Tae-suk finds an unlikely ally in Dong-soo, following an unsuccessful attempt on the gangster’s life by the film’s titular killer.

Expert cinematography by Park Se-seung keeps a tight focus on the film’s action scenes, capturing the feral intensity of Kyung-ho’s murders through a brilliant combination of multiple camera angles and steady-cam proximity. The film’s grand fight sequences are infrequent but effective, with glimpses of Old Boy and The Raid fleshing out the otherwise-slow-burning plot. While the film mostly remains consistent in its execution, there are moments that feel slightly out of place: a Steven Soderbergh-inspired funk-rock montage sets up the film’s second half, and the previously undaunted Tae-suk appears immediately traumatised in the aftermath of a rival gang attack on the duo.

Despite these minor irregularities in tone, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil still offers up the occasional, joyful surprise – Dong-soo’s display of juggernaut ferocity in a karaoke bar is brilliantly blunt – and is largely successful as another fine South Korean crime-thriller that feels at place among modern classics such as the Hong Kong crime series Infernal Affairs and 2002’s brutal revenge film I Saw The Devil.

Ma Dong-seok is unsurprisingly excellent in his role as Dong-soo, occupying each scene with dominating physicality and a brilliantly restrained, bubbling sense of ferocity. When Dong-soo does display his immense power, it’s often with a casual, effortless approach, which wonderfully contrasts the few moments where the character loses control of his otherwise-calm demeanour. The partnership and chemistry between the two leads adds a nice layer of humour to the film, which at nearly two hours long manages to maintain the pace of a piece half its length. As the inhumane serial killer, Kim Sung-kyu authentically captures the demonic sadism of his character with a detached, emotionless intensity – his rigid bodily movements and unblinking stare are consistently terrifying from start to finish.

Although offering little that we haven’t seen before in contemporary South Korean films and television, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil never feels undeserving of your time and attention – a delightfully unchallenging and entertaining crime-thriller that showcases some of South Korea’s most impressive acting talent of the moment.

Oxford Lamoureaux