Actor/writer/producer Don Lee, also known as Ma Dong-seok, has been making movies since 2005. He’s had roles in The Good the Bad the Weird (2008), Mother Vengeance (2012), a scene-stealing role in Train to Busan (2016), and, of course, the ass-kicking Gligamesh in Eternals (2021). His roles vacillate between tough and tender, dramatic and comedic, with such incredible ease that it’s easy to become enamored with even the worst characters Lee portrays. Thankfully, the role of Korean detective Ma Seok-do in The Outlaws series doesn’t fall under that category; instead, he’s a dedicated officer who walks a weird path in order to get the job done, as though ripped from a less modern era of action cinema and is just as endearing. Having its Quebec premiere at Fantasia International Film Festival 2022, Ma Seok-do returns in The Outlaws 2, a.k.a. The Roundup, to protect the streets of Korea from a murderous sociopath. As in The Outlaws, Ma Seok-do will use every tool in his kit to take down the bad guys, whether it’s a stern word, a hard slap, or a rib-breaking punch.
Set in 2008 and inspired by real events, The Roundup follows Detective Ma Seok-Do and Captain Jeon Il-man (Choi Guy-hwa) as they head to Vietnam for a routine prisoner transfer. While there, they discover that the prisoner they’re to bring back to Korea is a small piece of a larger scheme, one that involves kidnapping, ransom, and murder. At the center is the sociopathic Kang Hae-sang (Son Sukku). Despite being outside his jurisdiction, Ma can’t help but poke around, kicking off an investigation that’ll recover several bodies and drop a few more across two countries.
Though there’s no necessity to seeing The Outlaws (2017) before watching The Roundup, it’s recommended to do that first (watch it for free on Tubi). Admittedly, there’s about as much narrative connection from one film to the next as there is in most American cop film sequels, but, similarly to those, having seen the first will help in understanding the choices of the characters and enhance the plot. Because this is a sequel, a shorter one at that, the script from Lee and first-time screenwriters Kim Min-seong and Lee Sang-yong presumes the audience is already up to speed on who the members of the Geumcheon Police’s Major Crimes Unit are and how they operate, allowing the film to just jump into the action while also spending enough time with Kang to ensure the villain isn’t merely a carbon copy of The Outlaws’s Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang). Or, in another instance, one of the returning characters, Park Ji-hwan’s Jang Isu, plays a big part in the new film and the way things play out is delightful on its own but is made moreso by understanding what kind of relationship Ma and Jang have. So while you can absolutely go into The Roundup without any foreknowledge or experience with the series, the film is undoubtedly more enjoyable when aware of these characters and this version of the world.
That said, one issue (and even then it’s more feature than bug) is that the script repeats a lot of the beats of the prior film. Some are merely minor pitstops, like a brief visit to “the truth room,” while others feel like repeated scenes with different dialogue (Ma, Jeon, and the chief). Somehow, however, this doesn’t pull down on the film even in the slightest, so much as it highlights the familiar tropes of the ‘80s and ‘90s action films that were satirized in John McTiernan’s Last Action Hero (1993). I can absolutely picture the chief screaming Ma’s name in the vein of Frank McRae’s Lt. Dekker screaming for Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Jack Slater. Though it pains me to even reference Mel Gibson in anyway, the relationship between Ma, his team, and the chief feels like a version of the Murtaugh (Danny Glover), Riggs (Gibson), and Captain Murphy (Richard Donner) dynamic that helped those films shine. Don’t mistake this to mean that The Roundup is strictly a rehash of The Outlaws. It’s by no means the same film in that the bad guy has a different motivation, is somehow deadlier, and the opposing forces which get in Ma’s way are constructed creatively. Particularly after the success of the first film, this script demonstrates an understanding of what audiences want from Lee and his team: threatening villains, caring heroes, and so many beatdowns.
Speaking of, the stuntwork in The Roundup is impressive and is right on par with what audiences expect from a Lee-led film. Each of Ma’s punches, slaps, and kicks land with hefty crack to the point where one can’t help but worry that the actor on the other side may actually break something. As his opponent, Kang matches in speed though not in size, requiring that the character rely on weapons to offset the difference between himself and any opponent. A highlight sequence is one in which Kang and a single compatriot take on several armed assailants, staged so that the audience doesn’t realize director Lee Sang-yong (Fourth Period Mystery) is gifting us all with an extended tracking shot so that we can see exactly what Kang is capable of. Another one which leans into the comedy aspects involves Ma, a bad guy, and two escalators which have an unexpected impact on how the fight between the two go. It’s this kind of thoughtful staging and use of environment that make both Outlaw films as much fun as they are. What most action scripts forget, at least in America, is that any fight-based stunts should help move the narrative forward. The Roundup clearly understands this as a great deal of forethought is put into the inevitable Ma vs. Kang showdown. It’s not as brutal a fight as Ma vs. Jang Chen, an intentional aspect related to the narrative, nor is it as personal in presentation, but the setup, execution, and conclusion are deeply satisfying given the slow-build to this moment.
The Roundup is not without its flaws. The film is absolutely copaganda in that the series uplifts these officers as individuals who’ll do anything to keep the peace, including ignoring international law and breaking some human rights laws (plus a few bones). It’s strictly due to the fact that the films make it clear that Ma isn’t actually dirty, rather he’s resolute in upholding justice, making Ma more like Jack Slater than Vic Mackey. He’s a hero because, even when he’s a jerk, the film never loses its grip on Ma’s morality. Thanks to the incredibly genre-flexible Lee, the Outlaw series can center tales of crime-related murder and mayhem on a cop that inspires understanding within the audience, even rowdy support, that sometimes you’ve got to get a little dirty to get the bad guy. Personally, while I don’t think films like the Outlaw series are ones which require a philosophical exploration or a deeper read of the text, there’s certainly room for why we make cops heroes on camera and why those heroes often break the rules to get the bad guy. It’s a results vs. ethics notion that’s celebrated on film and, rightfully, denigrated in the real world.
As one film in a longtime legacy of cops-vs.-robbers storytelling, there’s not a single moment of The Roundup that truly disappoints. The humor is witty, the drama carries weight, and the action elicits audible “oomphs” and “oh-nos” from the audience. Even where there’re some lyrical echoes from Roundup to Outlaws, the whole of the film, led by the absolutely fantastic Lee, is a raucously good time. To that end, if there’s a legacy to be maintained by the Outlaw series, it’s that they comfortably join the litany of action-based cop films that audiences can put on, confident that they’ll have a good time.
Screening during the 2022 Fantasia International Film Festival.
In select U.S. theaters May 20th, 2022.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.