Lee Won-Tae piles on the cheese in this pulpy gangster thriller that rewards mightily, if you’re in the right mood.
This review is part of our coverage of the 2019 Cannes Film Festival.
From the first couple seconds, The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil reveals its color palette: sepia. Not desaturated as is the craze for recent action movies; not neon despite its metropolitan setting. It’s a little off-putting at first, but Lee Won-Tae’s film is proud of its pulp. “What, were you expecting “high art” here?” he seems to be saying at times, and who can blame him? This is something a young mind makes to recreate the solitary, late-night feeling of watching capital-E entertainment.
Lee’s setup isn’t more convoluted than it ought to be, either. After skipping through the dusty streets of South Korea, Lee brings us to the first third of his title. Meet Jang Dong-su (Ma Dong-seok), the kind of gangster who wails at a punching bag and opens it to reveal a twiggy guy on the inside coughing up blood. It’s not like he’s going for tea and crumpets, especially after having gotten rear-ended and attacked during a downpour a few nights prior.
One of the best decisions for that Lee makes as a filmmaker is portraying not so much as a person but as an encapsulation of how others perceive Asian crime sagas. He is, for all intents and purposes, cardboard cutout covered in cheese. The blow to his amour propre makes it all the more amusing when he seeks indirect revenge. That payback comes through Jung Tae-suk (Kim Mu-Yoel), a cut-from-stone detective on the search for a serial killer (Kim Sung-kyu). Perhaps Jang’s assailant is the man behind the growing murders? Well, of course he is.
Lee’s script builds most of its momentum through tropes instead of outward plot, making for a splatter of K-action and, later on, some chase scenes brought quite well to fruition. The film is a game of chicken with itself. It leans so far into self-seriousness until it comes out the other end playing cheesier than it was in the first place. This is the sort of sepia-glazed, midnight viewing cheesiness coming from a young mind, with masculinity carrying a crayon-drawn border around its unholy trio.
[The film] knows what it is, and it breathes in its smoke.
Does the film as a whole aim that high? No, but it doesn’t need to: it knows what it is, and it breathes in its smoke. But as the film ups the silliness in the latter half, it repositions the first half as having lacked some of its later grit. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil flows freest when its characters spar verbally, and the first half lacks some of its more playful sense of flair. Audiences will have to be game to sit through broader sight gags for the first 45 minutes, but the actors help give a more screwball sensibility to the tone throughout.
Where Lee shows the most straightforward talent is in the action scenes arising towards the end of act two. Foot chases give way to car chases with a clockwork grace and Han Young-kyu’s editing makes precise use of match cuts to create a sense of flow and, at its brighter moments, use that mise-en-scène to misdirect audiences.
Some might find the shifts in tone too staccato, but the “two steps forward, one step back” method to how Lee grows tension just does enough to distract from the fact that his film could have gone much more off the rails. This isn’t as overt as some may think, and it’s on the tamer side of Asian action cinema aside from some delightfully gnarly gut punches. If nothing else, Lee is looking out for those who grew up with these kinds of movies. I may not be one of them, but I can surely appreciate the silliness here.