Gangsters, cops, and serial killers are regular fixtures of Korean cinema. Director Lee Won-tae’s second film The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil blends them together in a novel way, depicting how a cop and gangster team up to catch a serial killer. The movie’s unique premise fertilizes an admirably suspenseful narrative and highly entertaining action scenes, though the titular characters remain regrettably undeveloped throughout.
Crime Meets Justice
As you may guess, the film’s title refers to its three main characters. On a rainy night, a mysterious serial killer (“The Devil,” played by Kim Sung-kyu of Netflix’s Kingdom) attacks a gang boss named Jang Dong-su (“The Gangster,” played by the beefy Ma Dong-seok of Train to Busan and Along With the Gods fame). Though Jang survives, his reputation suffers.
In this moment, a downtrodden police detective named Jung Tae-seok (“The Cop,” played by Kim Moo-yul of Northern Limit Line) spies opportunity. After his superiors continually thwart his attempts to investigate the serial killer, Jung enters into an unholy alliance with Jang. They’ll pool resources to catch the killer—detective Jung gets to solve a case, while gangster Jang gains a chance to avenge his loss of status.
However, bringing a criminal to justice (i.e. arresting) and getting revenge (i.e. killing) are two rather different objectives. This conflict between cop and gangster worldviews imbues The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil with significant narrative momentum. The plot swings back and forth between detective Jung and gangster Jang’s attempts to assert their perspectives on how to approach the serial killer case, which means you can’t easily predict what will happen next. As a result, the film remains consistently suspenseful and engaging. To its very end, there’s no space for boredom—only entertainment.
Ample, testosterone-filled action scenes also help The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil provide an entertaining viewing experience. The film draws heavily from tried and true action tropes in Korean cinema, most notably brawls between crowds of suit-wearing gangsters. Ma Dong-seok proves to be a perfect casting choice for this purpose; his bulky physique and husky demeanor lend a measure of raw credibility to the many fights and chases that occur in the movie. I do wonder how concerned Ma is about being typecast into “tough guy” roles, but he certainly plays those parts well, and consistently so.
While The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil is undoubtedly entertaining, it doesn’t attain “classic” status or create a lasting impression. The film leans too much into the “cop works with gangster” premise, making its three titular characters swappable archetypes—there’s not much that is unique or well-developed about its particular cop, its particular gangster, or its particular serial killer. This contrasts with the characters of “classic” Korean crime movies like Memories of Murder or A Bittersweet Life, whose characters experience transformations—or at least clear moments— of self-reflection.
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil had the potential to develop its characters more fully, and use its unique premise as an asset instead of a crutch. Detective Jung and gangster Jang’s justice versus revenge dynamic could’ve sprouted a richer exploration on their inner natures, where the lines between lawman and lawbreaker start blurring in morally complex ways.
There were many instances—like when Jung and Jang give a briefing to their combined forces—where the film acknowledges that these lines exist, and starts considering how it might blur them. Unfortunately, it never follows through completely and avoids meaningful engagement with fraught moral questions. Furthermore, the film’s serial killer feels like a human MacGuffin that simply exists to spur Jung and Jang along, as opposed to a fully-fledged character who sparks additional soul-searching.
Come for the Punches
The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil might not be great fodder for exploring human nature or the nuances of “justice,” but that probably wasn’t its aspiration. As an action movie to entertain yourself on a Friday night, it’s a worthwhile selection with many novel elements. You might not end up watching it over and over again like you would with A Bittersweet Life, but it’s definitely not a waste of your time.
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The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil (Korean: 악인전)—South Korea. Dialog in Korean. Directed by Lee Won-tae. First released May 15, 2019. Running time 1hr 49min. Starring Ma Dong-seok, Kim Moo-yul, Kim Sung-kyu.