Published: 10:31, May 3, 2024
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Korea’s rock-star cop soldiers on
By Amy Mullins
The Roundup: Punishment, directed by Heo Myeong-haeng, written by Oh Sang-ho. Starring Ma Dong-seok and Kim Moo-yul. South Korea, 109 minutes, IIB. Opened May 1. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

In the incredibly popular The Roundup series — which began with The Outlaws in 2017, and was followed by The Roundup (2022) and The Roundup: No Way Out (2023) — giant bear of a man Ma Dong-seok plays the gentle bruiser Ma Seok-do, an intrepid Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency detective. With the exception, perhaps, of the more-serious first entry, The Roundup films have seen Ma cultivate the image of a sensitive thug, who is supportive of his men, dedicated to justice and respectful even when he’s laying a wallop on the bad guys. He is South Korea’s The Rock.

In the three previous films, those bad guys have included Chinese-Korean gangsters battling for dominance in Seoul’s Chinatown, expatriate Koreans in Vietnam extorting tourists, and a corrupt Korean cop working with the Japanese yakuza to distribute a dangerous designer drug. Ma has swung a meaty fist to end the crime caper in all three of them. The Roundup: Punishment is no different. Fans will be thrilled, and everyone else will shrug and wonder what the big deal is.

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Incoming franchise contributing director Heo Myeong-haeng avoids rocking the boat in Punishment, which starts with a terrified Korean man fleeing some garden-variety gangsters in the Philippines. The man on the run ends up dead, and later on in Seoul, Ma promises the deceased’s mother that he’ll find the killer. The dead man was a software developer, and the murderer is the right hand of another IT genius, Chang Dong-cheol (Lee Dong-hwi), who’s deep into faux online casinos, crypto schemes, and money laundering. The assassin is played by Baek Chang-ki (Kim Moo-yul), a former special-forces soldier with a knife fetish and very little patience with Chang’s machinations. Ma and Baek inevitably wind up on a collision course with each other. Cue a great deal of stabbing and punching.

The Roundup: Punishment, directed by Heo Myeong-haeng, written by Oh Sang-ho. Starring Ma Dong-seok and Kim Moo-yul. South Korea, 109 minutes, IIB. Opened May 1. (PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Nothing in The Roundup: Punishment truly holds a candle to The Outlaws or The Roundup. This time around, screenwriter Oh Sang-ho re-injects the humor that was strangely stripped from No Way Out but strangely the extra violence lacks the gritty noir vibes of the earlier film. Heo sticks to conventional action beats and pacing, and marches his antagonists toward each other with clockwork efficiency. There’s an almost picaresque quality to the narrative. The sequences are timed to give us some Ma fisticuffs at regular intervals. As he and his usual investigators, led by Kim Man-jae (Kim Min-jae), cross paths with drug traffickers and other unsavory types, it’s all the excuse the film needs to let Ma off the leash. The requisite cop banter in the squad room could have been livelier — and less expository — but there are a handful of one-liners, particularly Ma’s Luddite resistance to cloud computing.

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But of course this is Ma’s film, and almost every scene is precision engineered to exploit his considerable screen presence. He was charming and emotionally engaging in Eternals, a lovable teddy bear in Train to Busan, and a goofy comic player in Men of Plastic, and is a bit of all three in Punishment. The cyber-crime angle gives the film currency, and as the new big bad, Kim (Ma’s co-star in The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil) does what he can to make the underwritten psychotic killer the kind of suave menace audiences love. It’s a hit-and-miss because as is well-known: No one can compete with Ma.