“The enemy of my enemy is my friend.” Few adages carry such eclectic morsels of truth like this one. For starters, it entails one understanding that they have enemies. Second, it implies that one can recognize and distinguish between their enemies — which can be dealt with physically, politically, and economically at a later date in time, and which must be handled swiftly and immediately? To that end, one may agree (if begrudgingly) to form an alliance with the threat that can wait in order to dispatch the more pressing danger. South Korean director Lee Won-tae applies the murky realities of said expression to the fullest in The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil.
The clock is turned back to 2005 during a piping hot summer in Cheonan. Jung Tae-suk (Kim Mu-yeol) is a police detective with an unenviable reputation amongst his peers for his attitude, amongst his superiors for insubordination, and in the eyes of criminal underworld leaders like Jan Dong-soo (Ma Dong-seok) — who are greatly annoyed by the law enforcement personality — for enforcing the law in his own brash, hyper-aggressive way. Neither Tae-suk or Dong-soo care very much for another other, but their rivalry is soon put on ice after a lone wolf assailant viciously attacks the gangster one night, leaving him to escape the encounter with a few very memorable scars. When detective Jung puts enough clues together to discern that Dong-soo’s attacker is the same individual that has been murdering people at random, a serial killer investigation is opened. Tae-sook and Dong-soo forge a tenuous alliance to combine resources, each one defying the other that they will catch the killer first.
Way back in 2003, Oldboy seemed to change the way global cinephiles viewed South Korean cinema. To this day, that film is quoted as being not only a masterfully bizarre and satisfying thriller, but as the movie that opened the rest of the world’s eyes to the extraordinary talent brewing in the Korean film industry. Since then, nary a year goes by without at least one movie from that country squeezing into somebody’s top ten list. Of course, not all Korean exports can be Oldboy. That would be odd. All the same, whatever their screenwriters, directors, producers, and actors are eating for breakfast before heading to the studio lot or shooting location, just please keep up the same diet for another hundred years.
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is another entry on what is becoming a stunningly long list of Korean thrillers that mesh action, intrigue, charismatic and strange characters, suspense, and visceral violence of the highest order. Oh, and by the way, the audience will erupt in a chorus of laughter a dozen times. It’s fascinating to see a film like this unfold before one’s eyes. It isn’t as if filmmakers have never supplied moviegoers with adventures in which goodies and baddies must come together for a common cause, and it isn’t as if there is a shortage of cop films in which the protagonist is a hot-headed, loud-mouthed (and foul-mouthed) jerk; therein likes the magic of what director Lee Won-tae and his team have pulled off. It doesn’t matter that the terrain has been marched on time and time again — the movie is wildly entertaining to the very final frame.
What generally helps movies of this ilk is how the intricacies of the plot are dealt with in engaging and thrilling ways, especially when the major plot outline requires some setting up in the early goings. How is it there is a killer about? What is his or her modus operandi? Who is the lead gangster in town? Why is there a rivalry between him and this infuriatingly persistent detective? In a lesser filmmaker’s hands, all of this would be played in a very ‘by the numbers’ way, lacking narrative flow and momentum. In a word, boring. Lee Won-tae is too clever for that, however, and drops in characters that will come back in big ways later in the picture, whilst thrusting the viewer into the film’s works with gusto and without a safety helmet. Even though the general beats can be guessed, the movie nevertheless succeeds in keeping the audience on its toes because the world itself is so wild and moves along so quickly. By the time Tae-sook and Dong-soo have agreed to partake in a pseudo-friendly competition to see who nails the killer first, the movie already has the audience — hook, line, and sinker.
Helping matters in no small way are the leads. Kim Mu-yeol, in particular, has a very difficult task at hand; the aforementioned trope of the cop fueled by a devil-may-care attitude requires the actor to bring his or her best stuff to the shoot. What Kim has in abundance is charisma. His Tae-sook is indeed a vile individual, behaving very much like — if not worse than — the actual gangsters he is assigned to bring to justice. The highlight is the charm that the actor injects into the part; for every nasty slap or comment, there is undeniable, raw charisma that exudes from his personality. Put differently, he is the sort of detective one would loathe having to tail them, but who must be amazing to have on one’s team, if only for how ferociously dedicated he is towards the ultimate goal — to capture the villain. Although there isn’t a false note in the entire cast, Kim Mu-yeol is the clear standout. Loud? Yes, but oh so amusing.
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil never loses steam, nor does it pull its punches. It is a splendid exercise in what South Korean cinema has been doing for so much of the better part of twenty years (at least, since the rest of the world took serious notice anyways). Be impressed by the gangster, sheepishly shake your head at the cop, and stay to see if they catch up with the devil.