Korea has dominated the midnight-movie/genre slots at international festivals so thoroughly of late that it’s hard not to view Lee Won-tae’s “The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil” in terms of its shortcomings in comparison to the likes of “Train to Busan,” “The Age of Shadows,” “The Wailing” and so on. But what this fun, slick but slightly forgettable hardboiled actioner lacks in terms of the energy, originality and inventiveness of a true Korean genre classic, it almost makes up for as a showcase for the burly charisma of star Don Lee, aka Ma Dong-Seok. Playing the criminal element of the title’s triptych Lee is a one-man weather system, so much so that he throws off the three-way balance a bit. The movie might as well be called “The Gangster…and Some Other Guys, Too, I Guess.”
The imbalance isn’t helped by the rather old-hat characterization of “the cop,” Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo-yeol), one of those incorruptible, brilliantly intuitive yet loose-cannon police detectives that already became parodic a couple of decades ago after Mel Gibson played the archetype into the ground. Given to busting gambling dens just for the hell of it when bored or stuck in traffic, Jung is a thorn in his captain’s side, especially when one such unscheduled shakedown happens to a crew run by Jang Dong-su (Lee) from whom Jung’s captain is quietly on the take. Still, he can’t do anything about his insubordinate subordinate, especially when it’s discovered that there’s truth to Jung’s hunch that a series of apparently random roadside murders are all the work of one man.
Enter “the devil” (Kim Seong-gyu), sadly the most pallid character in this threesome. A motiveless psycho with an entirely arbitrary method of choosing his victims, his killing routine involves rear-ending a motorist on a lonely patch of usually rainswept road, and when the driver gets out to examine the damage to their car, stabbing him or her to death with a kitchen knife. Though he’s certainly unpleasant, it’s hard to be properly terrified by such a psychological blank slate, but he performs his function in the mechanistic plot well enough when he picks the wrong victim: gang boss Jang, driving home from a powwow with a rival mobster. Jang, though taken by surprise, is a powerful boxer whose workouts include using a trussed-up miscreant as a literal punching bag, and he not only survives the attack, but wounds and drives off his attacker.
So you can see where this is going: Cop Jung and gangster Jang, though nominally on opposite sides of the law, are going to have to team up in order to bring down the guy operating outside the law altogether. It will be a showdown, finally, between those with a code, and those without.
Park Se-Seung’s photography is polished and professional, and given a gritty finish so the images are as high-contrast as the characters’ motivations. Action scenes, fluidly and often wittily choreographed (it’s a joy to witness Jang pummeling some unfortunate punk through a thick wooden door that appears to offer as much resistance to his meaty blows as a wad of wet tissue), are cast in monochromatic green or blue light, to up the style factor. Less successful is Jo Young-uk’s score, which sometimes aims for Scorsese-style jaunty, jangly counterpoint, and sometimes remains comfortably in the generic action register, but always manages to be both intrusive and rather anonymous.
But who cares about all that when there are whole gangs of opponents through which Don Lee gets to bludgeon his way like a wrecking ball made of steak? And while his physical presence is never less than imposing, Lee also has the best internal character arc to play: It’s not his physical injuries that drive Jang to avenge himself on the so-called “devil,” but the insupportable, destabilizing loss of face among his gangster peers that being the victim of a random stabbing will cue. It’s a matter of reputation, which is, in Jang’s ruthlessly dispassionate calculation, a matter of business: As much fun as it is to watch Lee beat people up and strut around in shiny pinstripe suits, it’s just as much of a pleasure to watch him think it all through.
And so it’s good news that Sylvester Stallone’s Balboa Prods., which has already secured the U.S. remake rights, have cannily kept Lee attached and slated him to reprise his role. It makes “The Gangster, the Cop and the Devil” the rare foreign film that might actually be improved by its Hollywood makeover, given that it will retain its strongest asset and hopefully upgrade some of its weaker areas. Whatever the case, you needn’t worry too much about parsing the differences between this perfectly serviceable action/buddy/crime pic and its potential English-language counterpart. As undemandingly entertaining as it can be, it’s highly unlikely you’ll remember too much about it by the time the remake rolls around.