Film Review: The Outlaws

Cops battle warring gangs war in a solid, hard-hitting Korean thriller.
Specialty Releases

Stripped-down and ultra-macho, The Outlaws tells a familiar story with enough style to seem fresh. Anchored by a tremendous tough-guy turn by Don Lee, this Korean production revels in its sleaze and grit.

Don Lee, also known as Ma Dong-seok, plays Ma Seok-do, an uncompromising cop in Seoul's Serious Crime Unit. With his bulging muscles and granite face, Ma fears nothing, not even his promotion-hungry captain. First seen breaking up a street knife fight, he knocks bad guys out by slapping them to the ground.

Ma's goal is to keep Chinese-Korean gangs in the Garibong district from open warfare, at the same time pacifying Hwang Chunsik (Jo Jae-yoon), head of the Korean gang that originally ruled the area. With a weakness for drink and bar girls, Ma is one step ahead of arrest himself.

Jang Chen (former boy-band singer Yoon Kye-sang), a ponytailed killer from Harbin on the Chinese mainland, comes to Garibong to collect debts. His method involves shattering hands with sledgehammers, cutting off limbs with hatchets, and knifing anyone who puts up a fight.

Jang and his henchmen pit one Chinese-Korean gang against the other, killing off the survivors and taking over their bars and gambling halls. Local shop owners are too afraid to help the police. The brass breathing down his neck, Ma gets ten days to stop the gang wars before the case is taken away from him.

The barroom brawls, alleyway beat-downs, car-chase crashes and illegal interrogations that follow can be found in any number of cop movies. What separates The Outlaws from the ordinary is Don Lee. A former MMA trainer, he has the heft and skills to intimidate anyone, plus a world-weary attitude that finds him more aggravated than angry at crooks.

Lee is a blast to watch. A cop who doesn't care about rights or duty or justice, who swats away villains like mosquitoes, he's like a Stallone gone bad. He's stabbed, smacked with a frying pan, hit by a car, and conked on the head with a cement planter, and all he complains about is dry skin. (An underling has to rub moisturizer on his arms because they're too big for Ma to reach around.)

Director Kang Yun-sung's script falters when Ma is off the screen. Jang isn't nearly as frightening as he's supposed to be, and the gangs can be hard to track as the story progresses. But The Outlaws is largely free from the heavy sentiment that afflicts most Korean cop movies. In fact, there's an unexpected comic touch to scenes where characters mispronounce words or flinch from flashbulbs when their pictures are taken.

The Outlaws may rehash tired plotlines, but it avoids many of the mistakes that dog artsy cop outings. And it has Lee, a performer who could shake up a lot of American B-movies.

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