It’s a generalization to be sure, but there are few things finer and more consistently entertaining than South Korean thrillers. From their focus on twisty narratives, knife fights, and frenzied fight action to their unrestrained tonal elasticity, their niche in the world of international cinema is more secure and reliable than most. The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil is the latest Korean export, and it’s a slick thriller and a terrifically entertaining two-hander about enemies forced into an unlikely partnership to bring down a greater evil. It’s also bloody great fun.
Loosely based on true events, the film opens in the summer of 2005 as a late-night fender bender leaves the driver of the car that was hit stabbed, slashed, and slaughtered in his own back seat. Det. Jung Tae-seok (Kim Mu-yeol) has come to suspect a serial killer targeting random victims has staked out a hunting ground in the city, but his superior is having none of it. Jung is already in hot water for making random busts in crooked arcades run by mob boss Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok, aka Don Lee) who not coincidentally is paying off Jung’s own boss for protection from just this kind of annoyance. Cop and gangster collide, though, when Jang is attacked by the killer and lives to tell the tale. He’s a bit worse for wear, but he gives almost as good as he gets and sends K (Kim Sung-kyu) scampering into the rainy night.
With no formal support from the police department, Jung convinces Jang that they have a better chance catching K if they work together. Their truce only lasts up through the hopeful capture, though, as their motivations are wholly individual — the cop wants justice and a promotion, the gangster wants revenge and to save face. The devil doesn’t stand a chance.
Writer/director Lee Won-tae‘s The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil may not be a ground-breaking entry in the country’s output alongside absolute gems like I Saw the Devil (2010), Confession of Murder (2012), or The Villainess (2017), but it still exists in a realm well above most of the genre efforts Hollywood knocks out these days. From its compelling premise through its engaging leads and exciting action beats the film is more often than not a captivating exploration of the blurry lines and varying gray areas between the law and those skirting it. There’s some filler here in the form of montage scenes and office politics that slow down the film’s momentum and energy, but the bulk is a stylish and fun ride into the night with two lovable assholes as our guides.
Two, because while both the gangster and the cop are given time and character to engage and interest viewers, the killer is intentionally left as a blank slate. A madman savagely murdering strangers on a whim is a frightening enough concept, but he’s never allowed to be anything more than that. To that end, Kim Sung-kyu does a good enough job making his character look madly homicidal, but he exists more as a target for the other two than as one third of the film. His best moment is a throwaway beat in a cafe as he watches a news report identifying a murder victim as one of his. “That wasn’t me,” he whispers to himself, and when a nearby diner overhears and looks up Kim gives him the creepiest of looks.
While K is one-note as a character, Jung manages to be a few steps above. We’ve seen his brand of rebel cop before, of course, but he walks a fine line here between not giving a shit about the rules and caring just enough about the ideals of law and order. He’s more than willing to bend restrictions, but when push comes to shove — and there is a lot of pushing, shoving, kicking, and stabbing here — his legion falls on the side of what’s right. Kim Mu-yeol gives him just the right combination of swagger and earnestness so that his antics never feel overly familiar or dull.
It’s a fun enough thriller on its own merits, but the element that lifts it into the realm of the highly entertaining is Ma’s performance as the big teddy bear of a gangster who’s just as likely to give his umbrella to a teen girl in a downpour as he is to pull a man’s teeth out with his bare hands. He does both here, and Ma makes you believe this dichotomy lives inside this man. He’s brutally pummeling a punching bag when we first meet him, and it’s only after a couple minutes of fierce hits that his lackeys unzip the bag to reveal the bloodied man inside. He stole the show as a supporting player in Train to Busan(2016), but here he is the show. “Reputation is everything to a gangster,” he says by way of explanation as to why he need to catch the killer and make him pay, and it’s enough to give him the greater arc over his cop counterpart. There’s more at stake here for him, and Ma ensures that the gangster’s more human side sits at the forefront while still gifting viewers with a scene where he busts a door down on top of someone and proceeds to punch him repeatedly *through* the wood. It’s glorious stuff.
The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil presents three men, each crossing the line in varied ways, and while it’s clear who the truly vile one is, the point remains that all people are multitudes and capable of more than one thing. There’s a reason there’s no “and” between the cop and the devil.