The city of Seoul has been terrorized by a series of seemingly unrelated murders where the victims have been stabbed numerous times and were then left for dead. Among the many cops investigating is Jung Tae-seok (Kim Moo-yul), a clever but also quite tough police officer whose methods often get him into trouble with his superiors, especially when he is disrupting the business of crime lords such as Jang Dong-su (Don Lee). Since he is a powerful figure in the underworld he controls a majority of the business in various districts of the city as well as the police force who would never dare touch him.
However, the paths of cops and gangsters meet when Dong-su is attacked one night by an unknown assailant. Considering the pattern of the attack matches the modus operandi of the killer, both the police and the gangsters are hunting for the same man. Hopelessly outmatched and unwanted in the serial killer investigation, Tae-seok turns to the crime lord to finally put an end to the murders. But there is a catch: while the cop wants to put him in jail, the gangster wants nothing less than to punish the person who attacked him. And while the murderer is still on the run, evading the police, this uneasy alliance between the police and underworld may be the only way of stopping the devil roaming the streets of the city.
After his first feature film and venture into the genre of drama with “Man of Will” (2016), Korean director Lee Won-tae takes on a thriller with his latest film “The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil”. Given the structure of the Korean film industry the summary of this film reads like the kind of thriller you would expect with the figure of the evil serial killer and the cop character bound by the restrictions of a corrupted system incapable of handling the gruesomeness of the murders. Those fond of films like “I Saw The Devil” or “Memories of Murder” will likely find some common ground between these works as well as the latest film by Lee Won-tae.
Nevertheless, Lee’s script notably deviates from the thriller formula. As you can see from the title, the figure of the gangster, portrayed by Don Lee as a brawny, cunning man used to giving orders behind the curtain of his clan’s hierarchy, is also part of the equation. In a world of “prey and predators” as he calls it quite fittingly at one point, the concepts of law and order, or those ideas protecting others, have been suspended. Because the system has been corroded by forces like his organization, it has allowed for monsters to appear who will not conform to any logic or order.
On the other hand, Lee shows characters such as Kim Moo-yul as Dirty Harry-ish men walking a thin line between both worlds. While they are loyal to the ideas of law and order, their methods and violence borders on the world of the gangster. The various parallel montages and the cinematography by Park Se-seung support the idea of two people working on opposite sides but having much in common in their characters and the way they work within the system. Ultimately, a force working against this system has to be eliminated, which makes working together to catch the killer all the more logical, besides Jang Dong-su’s thirst for revenge.
Apart from the design of the characters, one of the most notable points, especially in terms of visuals, is the structure of the city and the filming of the chase. Similar to many other works of the genre, Lee Won-tae constructs the urban landscape as a deadly, dark maze in many of his scenes, a perfect hunting ground for the killer who will use its corners to hide behind. Especially in the second part of the film, when the hunt for the killer really takes form, this adds quite a lot of suspense as well as pressure for the characters, for their uneasy alliance is about to break any time.
In the end, “The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil” is a tense, entertaining thriller. Fans of the genre, of suspenseful chases and the serial killer-films will find a lot to like in Lee Won-tae’s film.