One of the most enjoyable South Korean action movies in recent years, 2017’s “The Outlaws” was a deft mix of brutal gang-warfare thrills and Keystone Cops comedics. It provided an ideal vehicle for Ma Dong-seok aka Don Lee (“Train to Busan” and “Eternals”) as the police investigator whose hit-first-ask-permission-later methods regularly got the job done while infuriating his superiors.
That burly protagonist and his sidekicks are back in “The Roundup,” which despite a different directorial (newbie Lee Sang-yong replacing the prior edition’s Kang Yoon-seong) and writing crew, maintains the original’s strengths. It arguably kicks them up a notch further, making for a slam-dunk entertainment that’s already proved a sensation at the home box office. Pre-sold to most offshore territories, it’s currently playing U.S. and Canadian theaters as a Capelight Pictures release.
After a prologue showing the abduction of a wealthy young Korean in Ho Chi Minh City, we re-encounter our ham-fisted hero in 2008, four years after the earlier film’s events. Ma Seok-do (Ma) is still with the Geumcheon Police Major Crimes Unit, arriving to help his fellow officers deal with a knife-wielding nutcase who’s taken hostages at a corner store. Demonstrating his usual lack of tactical delicacy, he blunders into the establishment like a tank … but also promptly flattens the perp, rather like a tank.
As a reward of sorts, Ma is dispatched to Vietnam for an ostensible vacation that’s really a covert operation, accompanied by his alternately vainglorious and spluttering Captain (Choi Gwi-hwa). It soon emerges they’ll repatriate a Korean fugitive who’s suspiciously eager to be incarcerated back home. It turns out that self-surrendered weasel’s motivation is hardly sincere remorse, but terror of the violent death that surely awaits if he remains within reach of a criminal colleague he’s crossed.
That would be Kang (Sukku Son), another expat whose racket is now preying upon rich Korean travelers, kidnapping them for ransom. Regardless of payoff, however, they’re seldom seen alive again, because this sadistic, psychotic captor has a harrowing fondness for the machete that seldom leaves his hand. When the multimillionaire father (Nam Mun-cheol as Choi) of a latest victim reneges on promised loot, Kang makes good on his vow to pursue vengeance back in South Korea. This results in no lack of fresh mayhem, as well as the late arrival of two major characters: The wealthy target’s desperate yet brave wife (Park Ji-young) and a comically sleazy ne’er-do-well (Park Ji-hwan) Ma muscles into helping entrap Kang.
Indeed, there’s a whole lot of comedy in “The Roundup,” and as with the earlier film, it’s at once hilarious and offhand, a matter less of sight gags than quarrelsome character dynamics. Though often very funny himself, Ma provides the deadpan center to a constant hubbub of Preston Sturges-grade ensemble turns that include the returning junior detectives played by Heo Dong-won and Ha Jun. There’s even well-tuned comic relief among the gallery of subsidiary thugs.
That the film generates so many laughs is all the more impressive given the punishing vigor of its violence (even if the gore is usually just outside frame), with excellent chase set-pieces and mano a manos that seldom let up for more than a scene or two. It’s a high-wire act the movie manages with deceptive ease, maximizing both humor and extreme harm without ever seeming callous, or even unrealistic. It’s a testament to the expert fight choreography that each time Ma’s punch sends a bad guy flying through a wall or windshield, we believe it.
Of course that’s also a tribute to the star, who’s like Dirty Harry or late-period Charles Bronson without the self-satisfied smirk or lame quips. In many ways, his hero is the joke: a perpetual bull in a china shop for whom brute force is the default in any perilous situation, but who also has a humble, long-suffering, softie side. While “The Roundup” is generous with its other players, particularly giving archvillain Son space for a memorable turn, there’s no question whose appeal is the key element here.
An assistant on “The Outlaws,” Lee Sang-yong does a terrific job handling this logistically complex production’s requirements, delivering a confident tonal mix of grit, high polish, impressive stunts and character-based wit. Despite production woes apparently caused by the arrival of the COVID epidemic mid-shoot, there’s nary a sign of trouble in the airtight overall end product, or in the first-rate tech and design contributions.