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‘The Roundup: Punishment’ Review: Don Lee Thrills And Blood Spills In Fun, Stylish Police Action Thriller From Korea – Berlin Film Festival

The feelgood component of the action-packed Roundup franchise, says its originator, producer and star Don Lee (aka Ma Dong-seok), is that you know from the start that the bad guys are totally going to get rammed. As beefy detective Ma Seok-do, Lee has certain skills and dubious methods, both of which come down to his ability to punch harder than anyone else on the Korean peninsula. The Roundup: Punishment, which had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, is the franchise’s fourth instalment. A fifth is on the way; the plan is to make eight altogether, each based on a real case Ma Dong-seok chose during a series of fact-finding interviews with detectives 10 years ago. Clearly, he’s playing a long game.

The relationship of Roundup with reality stops right there, however, with the bare bones of plot. From that point on, these films are all about flying fists, smashed plate glass and masterly camera moves that extract the maximum possible from the very variable martial arts skills the dozens of combatants bring to the table. The Roundup: Punishment is directed by Heo Myeong-haeng, an established stunt coordinator: his own skills are very evident.

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Most of the fighting involves knives — so much bloodier and more up-close and personal than guns — but the crimes under investigation by Ma Seok-do and his team are largely white-collar. A few small-fry drug dealers and gambling profiteers are brought in for questioning or stabbed before they can give the game away, adding color to proceedings, but the main target is a crypto-currency entrepreneur, Chang Dong-cheol (Lee Dong-hwi), who is using online casinos as a clearing house for his essentially worthless millions. That doesn’t mean there is less action, however; guys like Chang have a lot of security.

Ma Seok-do, as befits a big man working the tough end of town, says little beyond lines like, “I really need to catch these guys.” We never know whether he has a home, let alone a family; the closest anyone down at the station gets to having a personal life is sharing take-out noodles while discussing who they’ll shake down next. Again, as it should be. You gotta catch these guys!

Against an accelerating jazz soundtrack — and if that sounds like a surprising choice, it really is — the Monster Cop et al are in a race against both time and a host of other horribles who would like to stick a sharp blade into the charmless Chang before Ma does. Chief among them are a pair of former mercenaries who run all the casino businesses in town and – danger warning! – think they deserve a bigger cut of the crypto than Chang is willing to share.

Ma may have met his fighting match in leading mercenary Baek Chang-gi (the glamorous Kim Moo-yul), who can slice up a line of security men with a blunt steak knife as soon as look at them. Baek is, in fact, ruthlessness incarnate. His methods to ensure his monopoly over the casino business include kidnapping IT nerds and making them work round the clock, hacking (in both senses) anyone who dares to set up a rival game of roulette.

It is the murder of one of these quivering digital slaves that leads Detective Ma to uncover this criminal empire in the first instance; fortunately, while he has no idea what crypto is and can barely operate his own phone when it comes to his comprehension of digital technology, his years in this game have given him plenty of contacts in the shadowy world of gambling. The writers have plenty of fun with these characters, who all stand on the shoulders of a long history of minor criminals too stupid to get a proper job. His comic foil is a Filipino scammer, Jang I-su (Park Ji-hwan), who not-so-secretly wants to be a cop himself. Ma can dangle him on a string like a cat playing with a mouse’s tail.

The Roundup: Punishment makes no intellectual demands on its audience. That isn’t what it’s there for. Along with its moral certainty that punishment will be meted out to the right people, it is doubly reassuring in its comforting similarity to any number of other films. That said, it does that same thing at premium quality level; you get exactly the thrills, blood spills and entertainment you expect, stylishly packaged in a twisting, turning story that is relatively easy to follow, at least while it is happening. In a genre where constant bafflement over plot details is the norm, this series stands out as carefully crafted. And fun, obviously.

Most of all, however, its excellence depends on Don Lee himself. Lee is an irresistibly cheery screen presence, a kind of Father Christmas gifting king hits to everyone who deserves one. “I’m a cop, so I don’t hit people with my full strength,” he tells Baek during a spectacular scrimmage in a plane – the first-class cabin, of course, with woeful damage done to the drinks trolley. “But for you, I’ll make an exception.” Whack, whack! You tell him, big man. And roll on, Roundup number four.

Title: The Roundup: Punishment
Festival: Berlin (Berlinale Special Gala)
Director: Heo Myeong-haeng
Screenwriter: Oh Sang-ho
Cast: Don Lee, Kim Moo-yul, Park Ji-hwan, Lee Dong-hwi
Sales agent: K-Movie Entertainment
Running time: 1 hr 49 min

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