While police brutality as slapstick may not be everyone’s cup of tea, it certainly does get laughs in “The Outlaws.” This hectic action-comedy, based, however loosely, on gang warfare in Seoul over the past decade, stars the estimable Ma Dong-Seok aka Don Lee (“Train to Busan”) as a police investigator who simply bulldozes through all opposition, be it legal or lethal.
More dependent on general high energy and a farcical edge than it is on outstanding action set pieces — though there’s plenty of well-tuned violence — “The Outlaws” is a very entertaining if not quite first-rank genre exercise that reps an auspicious bow for first-time feature director Kang Yoon-Seong. It performed superbly at home last year, and has opened or sold to numerous offshore territories since.
The tangled plot, drawn from a 2004 “gang mop-up operation” by Seoul police, has our badge-wearing protagonists dealing with a tsunami of rivalrous criminal activities. Korean, Chinese and Chinese-Korean gangs edgily co-exist in the down-market Garibong District until the arrival of three exceedingly cold-blooded emigres, led by long-haired Jang Chen (ex-K-Pop star Yoon Kye-Sang). They recognize no preexisting agreements or territories; starting out as brutal debt collectors, they simply terrorize their way into taking over whole operations from the established gangs.
Tasked with tracking down these Black Dragon perps and halting their escalating bloodshed is brick-built cop Ma Seok-Do (Lee), a bull who never met a china shop he couldn’t — and wouldn’t — reduce to rubble. Such methods occasionally irk his superiors, but they do tend to get the job done. Nonetheless, Jang Chen continues to elude arrest as his gang’s size and power grows, along with their penchant for committing acts of extreme violence in boldly public settings.
There’s nary a dull moment in the two-hour film, which favors grit over high style and manages to locate a certain mordant, messy humor in the nastiest criminal doings. (Our villain has a particular fondness for dismemberment.) There’s enough real rooting value here to avoid a sense that life and death are being trivialized for screen thrills. Still, the busy pic’s dangerous clutter has an almost Preston Sturges-like air of ensemble comedy on the brink of slapstick chaos, with Lee a combination of Charles Bronson and William Demarest — an unstoppable-force prone to blowing his top at any moment. While there’s genuine threat in scenes dominated by the Black Dragons, elsewhere (particularly in the Serious Crimes Unit office) Kang demonstrates a real talent for packing scenes with inspired throwaway comic lines and bits of business.
It’s all expertly handled, from casting to fight choreography to location choices and design contributions. So it makes perfect sense that when the principal good guys and bad guys get their final face-off, the melee takes place in a public toilet. That’s just the right way to end a caper that, to more or less equal degrees, has been bloody, dirty — and absurd.