Wednesday, May 31, 2023

THE ROUNDUP: NO WAY OUT, Ma Dong-seok Knocks Out Crowd-Pleasing but Safe New Instalment

By Pierce Conran

While The Roundup: No Way Out doesn't quite match the raw force of previous instalments Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee) packs a mighty punch once again as his burly big screen alter ego Ma Seok-do in the third of a promised eight ‘Crime City’ films (with some spin-offs touted to boot).

The jokes are there (in an even more abundant supply) and the punches are as thunderous as ever, but what this third film lacks is a compelling villain and the same calibre of colourful side characters. Lee Joon-hyuk is all cold stares and whispery baritones, and guest Japanese star Munetaka Aoki grows and slices his way through the screen, but both lack the charisma of Yoon Kye-sang or Son Sukku. 

Meanwhile Ma’s detective squad, which has also changed this time around, doesn’t share quite the same level of banter. This is partly due to the fact that the new film takes place seven years after the last one (there may be a larger mythos at play here with five more films mapped out, but it's a somewhat confusing jump). Speaking of familiar faces, series standout Park Ji-hwan is also sorely missed.

The film is also missing a solid story as it relies on a flimsy case of crooked cops and yakuzas double-crossing each other in a drug deal that Detective Ma barrels into. It's lightweight to the point that it struggles to hold down your attention after a while.

Granted, these films aren’t remembered for their stories but what they do have is texture. Alas, this new outing doesn’t really have an answer to The Outlaws’ grungy Chinese-Korean neighbuorhoods or The Roundup's sun-drenched Vietnamese detour.

Quibbles aside, Ma remains a terrific lead, ably carrying what is now clearly a franchise on his massive shoulders. And given how everyone else in the Korean film and drama industry is trying to supersize everything with giant CGI budgets I love how slimmed-down this series still is (save for Ma’s arms, they’re as big as ever).

Korean theatres have been flooded with big-budget tentpoles for years now and I’ve never been convinced this was the right play. Let Hollywood do Hollywood and let the local industry do what it does best - mid-scale, crowd-pleasing genre fare.

I think local audiences will be a bit more forgiving than I was and all signs point to this being a behemoth and likely the year’s biggest local hit.

Looking forward to round 4 (though hoping for a marginal improvement)!

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