Director: Lee Won-tae
Writer: Lee Won-tae
Starring: Don Lee, Kim Moo-Yul, Kim Sung-kyu
Our dicks may be many, but we have one heart.
Some of the best films in the world have come from South Korea. The quality output for the past 10 or 20 years has been almost unmatched. They’ve given us movies like Memories of Murder, I Saw the Devil, The Handmaiden, The Wailing, Train to Busan, and countless others. The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil doesn’t reach the heights of those all-timers. But, if this is the average kind of movie they put out, then they’ve got at least another decade or two as my favorite filmmaking country.
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil takes some classic story elements and combines them into a compelling—if not wholly original—story that gives you exactly what you’d expect from the title. Detective Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo-Yul) believes there’s a serial killer on the loose, but his coworkers and superiors are skeptical. They don’t believe him because, honestly, his evidence is pretty circumstantial. He’s also a bit of a hotshot who’s angling for a promotion. But one of the first things we see in the movie is the killer (Kim Sung-kyu) targeting a victim by bumping into their car, getting out to exchange information, then stabbing him to death. So we’re definitely on Tae-seok’s side.
The killer makes a huge mistake by trying this gimmick on Jang Dong-su (Don Lee), a crime boss and the titular “gangster.” Dong-su gets stabbed, but he’s also played by Don-fucking-Lee, so he survives and wants revenge. The movie really kicks into gear when Tae-seok, exasperated by the lack of movement from official channels, asks Dong-su to team up with him to take the killer down.
The movie shines when it allows its leads to bounce off of each other and circle around what’s “legal” and what’s “right.” They have really good chemistry. Kim Moo-Yul is like a young Mark Wahlberg, and Don Lee is an absolute force of nature. If you’ve only ever seen him in Train to Busan, this is a very different performance. There’s no cockiness, just a calm ferocity, and any strutting he does in his fantastic suits is completely earned. It’s like watching Tony Soprano try to take down a serial killer.
When The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil focuses too much on the clichéd gang war or the cop fighting back against the disbelieving chain of command storylines, it can drag a bit. Kim Sung-kyu has a watchable face and a strong presence as the killer. When we dive into who he is a little more, we lose some of that mystique. He becomes a killer-of-the-week from Criminal Minds or something.
There isn’t exactly a lot of new ground that’s tread. We’ve seen team-ups before, police briefings, stakeouts, foot chases, and criminal trials. But this movie excels by making them either visually interesting—there’s some great cinematography, especially when Tae-seok is on a rooftop, investigating a seemingly unrelated kidnapping case—or filling those scenes with fun actors.
The movie really takes off when it gives us stuff we haven’t seen before. A gangster being integrated into a criminal investigation enough to actually attend official police briefings is fun. Don Lee plays it like Dong-su also knows it’s rare, and he’s enjoying the novelty of it too. Two of my favorite moments were unexpected, but they were late enough in the proceedings. I don’t want to ruin them by going into too much detail. I’ll say that one of them is a chase through a karaoke bar that ends in a totally unexpected punchline; the other is a simple smile from Dong-su.
I’m not sure that The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil will surprise anyone that watches it. What you’d expect from this type of movie is generally what you get. The reason to watch it is the caliber of talent that went into it, specifically the performance by Don Lee. There’s an American remake in the works—because of course there is—and Don Lee is reprising his role in it. They chose the exact right element to keep the preserve.