Outlaws, The

Reviewed By Jay Seaver
Posted 12/04/18 09:56:49

"No matter where you go, there are apparently gangsters in Chinatown."
3 stars (Just Average)

SCREENED AT THE 2018 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "The Outlaws" is a basic as heck cop movie, the sort that starts with its cops and hoods on casual terms with each other and doesn't really start getting intense until the very end, even though the outsider invading the territory is constantly bringing the violence. The filmmakers know how these things are shaped, and are willing to give the fans what they like without a whole lot of new ingredients.

It's based upon "The Heuksapa Incident" of 2007, a concerted effort to crackdown on crime in Garibang, Seoul's Chinatown. As the film starts, the Venom and Isu gangs are constantly scuffling over territory, but cops like Ma Suk-do (Ma Dong-seok) and Park Byung-sik (Hong Ki-joon) tend to keep it tamped down because they're either trustworthy locals or the right kind of mildly corrupt. That changes with the arrival of Jang Chen (Yoon- Kye-sang) and his Black Dragons, notably the vicious Wei Sung-rak (Jin Seon-kyu) - Jang is quick to play the established gangs off each other and decapitate and consolidate what's left. It leads to a level of violence that the police can't ignore, although by the time they're ready to act, Jang has dug in enough to make it difficult.

There's not any sort of particular twist in the offing, and that's fine; a lot of people are just at a genre film to enjoy the familiar and maybe laugh at the moments when people just assume that everything will be all right, and this supplies it. There are dry-witted cops, frustrated gangsters, and the occasional lady just trying to make a living working in the casino's back rooms. It's the sort of gangster movie that celebrates equilibrium, where the new arrivals aren't just more violent but also a threat to a mostly functional system, and filmmaker Kang Yoon-sung does well to not be entirely pragmatic about it: There's just the right amount of discomfort around the old gangs that the viewer gets the sense that this sort of system is always going to be ready to fall when someone gets too ambitious, even as the new influx of greed and violence obviously demands a response.

Once that time comes, the film has a good time letting it play out. Kang and co-writer Lee Seok-geun rightly figure that if The Heukspa Incident was big enough to be named, it deserves the sort of overview where the audience can see what's going on while still playing out at a one-on-one scale when it can. There are shootouts, yes, and fights where getting slashed with a knife seems like it's mostly irritating, and they do well to stage them to feel both larger-than-life and grounded in the reality of the true story. Then there's the big throwdown where the big guys let loose, making a mess of everything around them. It's not an all-timer, but it's fair material for a movie mostly intended to do well on VOD.

That The Outlaws was something of a surprise hit in Korean theaters probably owes much to having a good lead in Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee), who was just starting to break out as a genuine star when the film came out. He knows how to deliver a wisecrack and make his size work for him so that he's both kind of a big teddy bear and an imposing figure, and he's better-than-okay in a fight, especially the climax with Jin Seon-kyu's Sung-rak. Yoon Kye-sang does decent work as his opposite number, projecting the sort of glee that lets one know he's not the sort of gangster whose ruthlessness is mostly about getting rich, but a force of chaos in opposition to the order Suk-do is trying to maintain.

There's a little flab to "The Outlaws"; it's the sort of crime movie that asks the viewer to give equal attention to a lot of things early but doesn't gain quite as much focus as it could by paring them away. It nevertheless does the job it sets out to do, making for a fair couple hours of cops & crooks, good enough that the sequel that's been announced isn't unwelcome, whether it gives Suk-do an entirely new adventure or dramatizes another real-life incident.

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