Don Lee packs a punch in the fourth instalment of the popular Korean action comedy series

The Roundup: Punishment

Source: Berlinale

‘The Roundup: Punishment’

Dir: Heo Myeong-haeng. South Korea. 2024. 109mins

Fans of the first three films in the Korean action comedy Roundup series – The Outlaws (2017), The Roundup (2022) and The Roundup: No Way Out (2023) – will know  what to expect from this fourth instalment. And while The Roundup: Punishment may not win over new audiences, it is unlikely to disappoint its fanbase: it’s a robustly entertaining romp starring Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee), reprising the role of “Beast Cop” Detective Ma Seok-du and clobbering some justice into a selection of snivelling wrongdoers with his piledriver fists.

Pacy, slick and unapologetically formulaic

The plot, unfolding in both Seoul and the Philippines, involves an illegal online gambling organisation and the murder of a South Korean tech kid in extravagantly violent circumstances. But as always, the real point of the picture, which has sold to multiple territories including the US and UK ahead of its Berlin premiere, is to serve as a vehicle for Lee’s oversized charisma. 

Although this is only the second directorial outing for former stunt and fight choreographer Heo Myeong-haeng, he is a long-term collaborator with Lee, having worked as a fight choreographer on Train To Busan, and a martial arts choreographer on the previous three Roundup pictures. (His directorial debut, dystopian sci-fi action picture Badland Hunters, also starred Lee.) Not surprisingly, the fight sequences are where the film fully comes to life. As far as the series’ trademark blend of action and comedy goes, Heo seems more comfortable with the former than the latter. Pacy, slick and unapologetically formulaic, The Roundup: Punishment may not match the reception of the previous pictures but, like the inimitable Detective Ma, it gets the job done in its own distinctive and efficient manner.

Lee may be best known to some Western audiences for his uncharacteristically muted performance as Gilgamesh in Chloe Zhao’s The Eternals but, since his breakout performance in Train To Busan, it is Korean cinema that fully utilises the actor’s unique appeal. Glowering, unreconstructed and boarish, Lee’s screen persona as Detective Ma seems to consist of equal parts scowling and punching.

If anything, there is even more scowling here because, as one colleague ventures, Ma “isn’t really the tech savvy type”. The detective who can barely work his cellphone is not an obvious fit for a cyber crimes investigation – or indeed for anything that cannot be slapped into submission. Fortunately, there is also plenty of gang-based knife violence and murder, which is an area of crime investigation that Detective Ma knows his way around.

A key part of the appeal of this series is the fact that the line between the good guy and the bad guys is blurred to the point that it ispractically non-existent. So a scene in which Ma shows something approaching decency comes as an almost unwelcome surprise. Fortunately, this is soon followed by a terrific sequence in which Ma extorts funding for an ad hoc expense account for the investigation by menacing a couple of low-life gangsters.

The real villains of the piece, meanwhile, include slippery tech-bro Chang (Lee Joo-bin), a flamboyantly dressed dandy with a viper’s smile and a cupboard full of money, and his ruthless enforcer Baek (Kim Moo-yul), a worthy opponent for Ma in the film’s most visceral and gory fight sequence.

Production company: Bigpunch Pictures, Hong Film, B.A. Entertainment

International sales: K-Movie Entertainment

Producers: Yoo Young-chae, Kim Won-hoon

Screenplay: Oh Sang-ho

Cinematography: Lee Sung-je

Editing: Kim Sun-min

Production design: Bang Gil-sung

Music: Yoon Il-sang

Main cast: Don Lee, Kim Moo-yul, Park Ji-hwan, Lee Dong-hwi, Lee Joo-bin