Back in the 1990s, after the success of The Silence of the Lambs, it seemed like five or 10 Hollywood movies every year were about serial killers. South Korea seems to be going through a similar phase right now, ever since the success of 2010’s I Saw the Devil. The latest film, The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil, comes to AMC Grapevine Mills this week, and while it’s not a high point of the genre, it does have its points.
The movie takes place in the summer of 2005, as the country is being terrorized by a killer (Kim Sung-kyu) who instigates minor car accidents on deserted roads so he can stab the other driver to death while exchanging insurance information. Rogue police detective Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo-yeol) believes that the murders are the work of one person, but he spends his spare time harassing mafia boss Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok), who has bribed Jung’s police chief but still can’t control him. The dynamic changes when the gangster falls into the killer’s hands. Jang fights back and manages to wound the murderer, at the cost of taking five stab wounds and being hit by the killer’s car. From that point, the cop and the mobster work together while secretly planning to double-cross each other — the don wants to catch the killer before the cops do so he can cut him up and put his body parts on display. After all, a mob boss has a reputation to protect.
Every character here is an appalling asshole. Jang betrays his underlings whenever it’s convenient for him, so small wonder that they wind up doing the same to him. Jung, meanwhile, head-butts criminals on the street whenever he feels bored or frustrated, which is all the time. The police chief (Yoo Jae-myung) is not only crooked but insists that there’s no serial killer in the face of all evidence. The feds eventually take over the case and waste no time in telling the local cops that they’re a bunch of incompetent idiots, triggering a brawl inside the police station. These people are all coarse, callous, and incurious, and you rather wish that someone would just lock the three main characters in a room with a sharp stick and leave.
Still, if you’re in the mood for something nihilistic, where loyalty means nothing and violence promises to go on with no end in sight, this movie delivers. (This is not the first Korean cop thriller I’ve seen with this attitude, either.) Writer-director Lee Won-tae keeps everything moving at a frenzied pace as alliances shift, break, and re-form. The initial fight between the boss and the killer is a savory taste of things to come, which include a manic three-way car chase and a massive fight when Jung and Jang are attacked by gangsters loyal to someone else. Of the three principals, it’s Ma (the star of last winter’s Unstoppable) who shows off the best, going about his role with a calm soft-spokenness that contrasts with the brutality of his methods. If the rumors are true and Hollywood remakes this with him reprising his role, it would be an excellent move. A remake would probably be more humane, though probably not as well-made.
Starring Ma Dong-seok, Kim Moo-yeol, and Kim Sung-kyu. Written and directed by Lee Won-tae. Not rated.