It’s only a matter of time before Ma Dong-seok is the most popular actor in the world. His involvement with Marvel’s upcoming The Eternals certainly points toward his eventual takeover of the West. Last year’s Champion is an absolute crowdpleaser. And I truly believe he’s the main reason people adore Train to Busan as much as they do.
And now we have The Cop, the Gangster, the Devil, a harder edged (but not THAT hard) Korean crime drama. The film is ostensively a three-hander, something along the lines of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, but you’re only going to remember one of these guys after seeing it. And if not for Ma Dong-seok, it’s entirely possible the film would be a snooze.
But it’s not a snooze at all. This isn’t one of those extremely special films you must run out to catch immediately and at all costs. If you were to happen upon it though, you’d be rewarded with deftly made crime film with the added bonus of Ma Dong-seok.
As the title promises, there is a cop, Jung (Kim Mu-yeol), a gangster, Jang (Ma Dong-seok), and a devil, Kang (Kim Sung-kyu). The “devil” here is a serial killer who rear-ends people in traffic and then stabs them to death when they get out to investigate and exchange insurance information. Jung is on his trail but the random nature of the crimes, combined with a superior who will not listen to his intuition, makes catching the killer extremely unlikely. Until, that is, the killer ignorantly picks Jang as a target. Jang fights his attacker and sees his face, but is too injured to finish the job. With their separate well of resources, the cop and the gangster decide to join forces behind doors to catch the killer. But their cooperation is also a race to either arrest or murder him.
Were the cop and devil in this scenario nearly as interesting as Dong-seok’s gangster, we’d have a real classic on our hands. Kim Mu-yeol and Kim Sung-kyu aren’t boring in their roles, but they don’t quite pop the same way, either. The film is still well beyond serviceable, however, especially for those have a fondness for this genre. It’s also something of a crowd-pleaser. The scenes of violence are quite grim (Dong-seok’s introduction interrupts him punching a man to gooey death, for instance), but this is not one of those extreme Korean enterprises that challenge viewers’ stomachs. Despite all the stabbing, the tone is somewhat lighter than expected and there are a surprising number of jokes at play. (In a very helpful touch, no one in the film uses guns, which helps keep everything intimate and interesting.)
I think this is how it has to be with Ma Dong-seok. While certainly a large, imposing and stoic figure, there is too much kindness the actor’s face for him to ever go full dark. I’m sure Hollywood will eventually try it anyway, but it would never work for him to play a character we actually fear or dislike. He doesn’t have it in him. So while his gangster character doesn’t pull punches (or slaps), the film also frequently makes sure to illustrate a beating heart behind all those beatings.
While not the epic the title might have you expect, The Cop, the Gangster, the Devil is still a great time at the movies. Sylvester Stallone is supposedly producing a remake with Ma Dong-seok reprising his role. I am insanely curious to see how that one turns out. In the meantime, you could do a lot worse than checking this one out.