Certified critic on Rotten Tomatoes. Member of the Houston Film Critics Society. Also writes for Bounding Into Comics and God Hates Geeks.
Starvation Leads to Weakness
The South Korean action crime film The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil directed by Lee Won-tae and starring Ma Dong-seok (Train to Busan), Kim Mu-yeol (War of the Arrows), and Kim Sung-kyu (Tunnel) has an incredibly simple premise; a gangster named Dong-su (Dong-seok) and a cop named Tae-seok (Mu-yeol) reluctantly team-up in an effort to track down a serial killer (Sung-kyu) for their own selfish reasons. Occurring in August of 2005, the film opens in the city streets in the early hours of the morning. Neon colored lights bounce off the shiny exteriors of automobiles as they weave through intersections as most of the population sleeps. A normal 46-year-old man is in a fender bender and is killed while photographing the damage to his car; stabbed 12 times by a mystery assailant without a trace of evidence.
The murder falls in line with a couple other deaths and missing persons cases over the past couple months. Tae-seok is convinced that they’re dealing with a serial killer, but his police chief won’t listen to him. Tae-seok has a reputation of being hot-headed and impulsive. He always seems to be in the place he was specifically instructed not to go to. He believes that if his unit is willing to do a little work outside of their usual jurisdiction that they’ll finally be able to not only close a case for once but its closure would have a domino effect of closing at least another five other cases in the process. The downside is his boss is working with the mafia and is being paid off by Dong-su, so it’s an uphill battle for Tae-seok from the start.
Dong-su is in the middle of a territorial dispute with some rival gangs. While he is a Don, his biggest issue at the moment lies in a friend who is now demanding a bigger piece of the pie because of their friendship. Dong-su is attacked by the serial killer and is put in the hospital, but becomes the only living witness to what the killer looks like. Dong-su’s reputation is tarnished because of the encounter and he’s looking to get back on top with the best weapon he has in his arsenal; the dirtiest and bloodiest revenge imaginable.
The beauty of The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is the way the film is written. The story capitalizes on three main characters who are all trying to out-bad one another; a dirty cop, a gangster with everything to gain, and a killer who thinks he’ll never be caught. It’s a cat and mouse chase kind of thriller with an extra element thrown in like a rabid dog injecting itself into the cat's chase of the mouse.
It could also be like three alpha wolves attempting to take charge of the pack. They snarl, bite, and rip each other to shreds but they become so obsessed with one another that they fail to see how this three way dance is sacrificing the pack they're so eager to take charge of and destroying the city they reside in all for the sake of revenge, to make a name for himself, or simply for fun. The film portrays evil, bad nature, a rotten soul or whatever you want to call it in particularly interesting ways. Every character has blood on his hands and has committed acts or crimes that have sullied their reputations, but who do you root for and who will prevail? How will the world change after the dust has settled?
The performances are also extraordinary. Ma Dong-seok continues his streak of memorable on-screen personas, but he’s also able to make the audience be intrigued with a man we probably shouldn’t care so much about. Dong-su seems to be the guy with the most at stake. He has the most resources, a financial reservoir that isn’t running dry any time soon, and the most logical reason of taking down a serial killer. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil attempts to put a leash on a monster and it’s only a matter of time before those chains break.
Kim Mu-yeol is like an anti-hero as Tae-seok. While he believes criminals should be brought to justice, he basically has an any means necessary kind of outlook to bringing them in even if it means breaking the law himself in order to do so. Kim Sung-kyu has this scary calmness to his performance as the killer. While it’s mentioned South Korea has issues bringing in firearms and that is why more criminals use knives, Sung-kyu finds joy in the intimacy of using a knife on his victims. He seems to enjoy watching his victims writhe around in pain as he repeatedly punctures their life force until it dissipates completely.
There is this wafer thin line between law enforcement and crime in The Gangster The Cop The Devil. That line is blurred and smudged and stretched beyond its limitations until what separates law from crime begins to bleed and run into one another until they’re essentially one and the same. Cops, gangsters, and killers have more in common than you think and their inability to coexist with one another results in absolute carnage paved with a savage trail of blood. Lee Won-tae has struck vicious, bloodthirsty gold with The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil with its mesmerizing and phenomenally talented cast and a concept that is so brilliantly simple that it’s allowed to flourish in complex ways during a way too brief 109-minute duration.
© 2019 Chris Sawin