Saturday, June 11, 2022

The Roundup

An online acquaintance recently bemoaned the lack of schlock in theaters, which kind of seems like the flip side of not having romantic comedies or coming-of-age films in theaters; I don't think it's the inevitable result of any one thing but a lot of different forces that have positioned going to the movies as something you do for spectacle or prestige pictures as opposed to an affordable and pleasant evening out, at least in the United States. I don't miss schlock so much myself, but I do miss mid-range movies that might be at least a little better on the big screen, and it's kind of amused me at times over the past decade that we often wind up importing those things from Asia, because a Chinese romantic comedy (occasionally a remake of an American one that would go straight to Netflix today) or an Indian underdog story or a Korean cop movie at least has a niche appeal that will get people out of their living rooms in a way that something more mainstream doesn't.

That's what The Roundup is, more or less - a crime story of the type that would hit theaters fairly regularly in the 1980s or 1990s (Steven Seagal and Chuck Norris starred in a bunch of them) but became too small at some point. It's a sequel to another movie, The Outlaws - that's why you see a "2" on any posters with Korean script - but you get the shape of it from a quick look and don't exactly need to come in with anything else. It's not quite ambitious enough to get a big screen release if it were an American film, but it hits enough marks to pull fans of Korean genre cinema out of the woodwork, and just good enough that I'll probably circle back around to the first at some point.

Beomjoidosi 2 (The Roundup)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 10 June 2022 in AMC Boston Common #13 (first-run, DCP)

It's kind of funny that I was initially kind of frustrated/annoyed that Boston wasn't one of the cities that opened The Roundup almost day-and-date with South Korea, because as much as I like quality action and Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee), there are probably a dozen movies like it that anonymously appear on video-on-demand services and streamers every month starring people like Michael Jai White and Scott Adkins. The fact that there might be some sort of obstacle in the Korea-to-America pipeline keeping it from me probably annoyed me more than the excitement that a trailer almost entirely composed of Ma punching people and dropped the week Eternals introduced him to the wider world actually merited.

It's basic enough stuff - Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) is a Deputy Captain in the Seoul Police Department, prone to cause some embarrassment because he's got a tendency to rough people up too much. After one such incident, he and his captain Jeon Il-man (Choi Gwi-hwa) are sent to Vietnam on a milk run to extradite a lookout who turned himself in at the consulate. The why of it bugs Seok-do, though, and he soon learns that the guy basically figured Korean prison was safer than being anywhere near Kang Hae-sang (Son Sukku), a kidnapper with a tendency to kill his abductees and any henchmen who get squeamish. The father of Kang's latest victim sent a team of mercenaries to deal with him, which means Seok-do will eventually have to track him back to Korea.

It's a raggedy plot built to space the action out and vary what kind of action to stage. Some action movies of this sort build their fight scenes around impressive choreography and clever staging, but Ma Dong-seok is a big muscular dude who is built to just whale on people, as the folks who made this movie are well aware of that, opting to exaggerate how much a punch will send a normal-sized person flying rather than have fights end quickly and anticlimactically. It sets a tone that carries through all the action, with little of it pretty or elegant but canny in how the filmmakers use the impact. Most folks are trying to be effective and do enough damage with each blow ro end it more or less right away, even if their opponents have more stamina than expected.

You need a little extra to make it go on for more than a few seconds, and since guns kind of have the same issue in terms of ending it quickly, the solution director Lee Sang-yong and his co-writers (including Ma) is blades, which are going to make even a mountain like Seok-do think twice. The film has got some top-shelf knife fight material, and is indeed stabby enough in general to make folks more used to clean gunfights and martial arts wince a bit, although it may just be the sort of Korean violence one is up for.

So why head out for this meat and potatoes (or whatever the Korean equivalent is) VOD-level flick? Well, it is elevated by the presence of a genuine movie star who can inject a bunch of charisma. Ma is better than what this material asks of him as an actor and he probably knows it, but it lets him add an odd wholesomeness to this sort of tough-cop character that lends itself to self-deprecating jokes and a sense of fun even when the violence amps up; he thinks in terms of helping people rather than being a cynical thin blue line holding back chaos. It's a counter to Son Sukku's vicious kidnapper who spew pure undirected malice, a permanent scowl who doesn't necessarily give any signs of enjoying his viciousness despite his intensity; one gets the feeling he's come to the conclusion that maximizing violence is just what's best for business at some point.

It's straightforward but gets the job done, maybe a touch self-aware and too dedicated to helping characters from the first installment around - I haven't seen The Outlaws, but there's one guy with a small role in Vietnam that the audience is clearly meant to recognize and someone else that must have been a fan favorite because he's given a lot more to do that seems wise. It's still able to find room for a couple curveballs, like the wife of a kidnap victim summoning nerves of steel, and knows exactly what sort of hard-hitting action the audience is leaving their apartments to see.

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