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‘The Roundup’ (review)

Author’s Note: I generally convey some sketch of the plot in my reviews but here there’s no need and therefore the whole review may be read before watching the film, without fear of spoilers.


The Roundup is a Korean action-comedy and a rollicking good time. This is exactly the sort of movie I was weaned on: tough, everyman cops taking on ruthless gangsters in a fun, action-packed and genuinely funny romp.

If you transplanted this film to 1987 Hollywood it would fit right in, right down to the regular airings on TNT’s Movies For Guys Who Like Movies.

The engine that makes this cinematic sports car go is star Ma Dong-seok (Train to Busan; The Eternals) whose unique physicality, perfect comic timing and everyman appeal have made him an international star since his turn in Train to Busan.

Asian action cinema is replete with heroes who you wouldn’t want to fight, heroes you’d love to have a laugh with, and guys who fill both descriptors equally well.

What makes Ma so unique is that he’s not a martial arts master or an ace gunfighter– he’s an old school brawler who recalls Terence Hill and Bud Spencer and their classic Italian action-comedies. He throws big punches that drop guys in their tracks but never believe he enjoys hurting people. He’s equally believable tripping over a display while trying to be stealthy as he is dropping scumbags with a single punch.

If Roger Moore was built like a wrestler and played Murtaugh from the Lethal Weapon films, you’d have a picture of Ma’s unique appeal in this film.

The Roundup is a sequel to 2017’s The Outlaws, apparently it’s the first of a planned six sequels to that film starring this team of cops. While this film totally works as a stand alone piece and doesn’t depend on having seen the first film in any way, I can happily report that, having seen both, this film builds on that picture’s strengths expertly while presenting a more consistent tone and simpler, more satisfying plot structure.

This is a clear step up. Whereas that film had Chinese triads muscling in on Seoul, here the cops are after Korean gangsters who have set up shop in Vietnam. There’s less fish out of water or culture shock stuff than you would think – this film is a vehicle for Ma’s bulldozer of a cop to drop bad guys with a punch that feels like the pugilistic equivalent of Dirty Harry’s .44 Magnum.

This is such a wonderful curveball in Asian action cinema because generally when your hero is about to throw down, you’re going to get an elaborate, beautiful, fight sequence that steals the show. Here, however, Ma loads up that big right hand and it just annihilates guys. The film, like the original, gets a lot of mileage out of a bad guy gearing up to fight, taking the big shot, and then trying to continue for a second while their body shuts down on them, like a boxer who has been knocked out and doesn’t know it. It happens a half dozen times and it never gets old– it always feels like the fight is absolutely over and it’s always alternately hilarious and a little frightening.

Director Lee Sang-yong makes his debut behind the camera here and he’s great. An easy hand with the comedy and action, he establishes with precision how Ma interacts with his partners, and how the various power struggles of the Korean triads are situated, puts the pieces into place, and executes. The jokes land, particularly in an opening sequence taken from the Stallone film Cobra, but this time is as funny as it is thrilling. There’s no higher aspirations at work here, and no larger commentary on the world present but for a reviewer who was fed Beverly Hills Cop, Lethal Weapon, and Tango and Cash as a kid sometimes, just pleasing the crowd and hitting your marks is all you need to do. It helps to have a star like Ma in the lead, and I hope between this and his more serious work, we seen a lot more of him in years to come because he brings an action-comedy dynamic we haven’t seen in a long, long time.

4 out of 5 stars

*  *  *  *  *
Produced by Ma Dong-seok, Kim Hong-baek, Jang Won-seok
Screenplay by Kim Min-seong
Directed by Lee Sang-yong
Starring Ma Dong-seok, Son Seok-koo, Choi Gwi-hwa,
Park Ji-hwan, Heo Dong-won, Ha Jun, Jung Jae-kwang




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