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The Roundup Punishment Review: Sturdy Formula

Ma Dong-seok is fighting a younger man behind half open doors in The Roundup: Punishment

The Roundup: Punishment is earnest and fun enough as a turn-your-brain-off action film, but its formula is its greatest flaw as it is its strength.

Director: Heo Myeong Haeng
Genre: Action, Crime
Run Time: 109′
US Release: May 3, 2024
UK Release: May 3, 2024
Where to watch: in theaters

Korean Title: City of Crime 4
English Title: The Roundup – Punishment

I don’t think I’ll ever comprehend how movie title translations work. Then again, I shouldn’t bash the English side only. I mean, the film Fate of the Furious is translated as Furious Ride: The Extreme in Korean.

Directed by Heo Myung-haeng, The Roundup: Punishment is the fourth installment in The Roundup series, following Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok, of Train to Busan), and his battles against crime as the Seoul Police Agency lieutenant. This time, his battle is against an online gambling organization exploiting and even killing off teenagers. God help the criminals.

Maybe that was shorter than usual, but you need to understand that this goes for The Roundup series in general. They are not complicated movies. Ma Seok-do finds a group of irredeemable criminals, and his hulking mass of muscles and an even greater sense of justice leads him on an unstoppable rampage against crime. Lots of action, just as much comedic bits, and you have the series in a nutshell; The Roundup: Punishment is no exception.

It’s easy to understand if you look at Ma Dong-seok. His filmography mainly consists of him as a physically dominant action star that also doesn’t forget a bit of heart and a little adorableness on the way. In other words, he’s the Korean equivalent of Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Liam Neeson, etc, where the actor has created a popular typecast image around himself, one that’s genuinely likeable and easy to consume. I don’t dislike these sort of actors. Yes, one could accuse them for basically playing the same character in every movie, but even creating that iconic typecast image takes genuine skill.

If Ma Dong-seok was really ctrl cv-ing his performances across his movies, then that image would have run dry very fast. Instead, while his general mannerisms and settings are similar, he brings in different bits of heart or dialogue to each of his roles, so that they are recognizable as the Ma Dong-seok brand, but still feels just different enough to watch. When this typecast imagemaking is done well, I can enjoy myself, and that certainly is the case with The Roundup: Punishment. Ma Dong-seok is a large part of what makes the film tick.

Ma Dong-seok walks with a yellow car behind him in the film The Roundup: Punishment
The Roundup: Punishment (Capelight Pictures)

But if the movie puts in no effort beyond its star, then even a strong typecast image cannot carry the entire film on its own. Thankfully, The Roundup: Punishment isn’t one of those movies. For one, the film’s action is actually a lot stronger than I expected. Ever since John Wick (2014) popularized the “steady cam” style of action, so to speak, more movies have thankfully been following its example, and this is one of them. Camera remains fairly steady, and the shots are long and clean, giving the audience enough time to take in the stunt work.

In addition, the film doesn’t forget that Ma Dong-seok isn’t the only character in the film. Seok-do’s police comrades might not get deep or largely compelling stories, but they still remain likeable and relevant in bringing in the film’s villains. They also provide the main source of this film’s comedy. Not all of them land, but they give off a general air of people who are sincere and have known each other for a long time, which gives me enough incentive to stick through even the bad jokes.

The movie also puts in a bit of effort in making its villains compelling, although in this regard, it also runs into an issue. Baek Chang-gi (Kim Mu-yeol, of The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil), a former special forces member turned criminal, doesn’t have too many iconic lines, or lines in general. But he makes up for it by bringing an air of a cold and completely serious killer, which extends to his action as well. It makes him entertaining to watch, and he comes off as a credible threat to some extent.

But that’s the main issue, “to some extent.” And this comes back to a problem that’s not just prevalent in the film but the entire series. Ma Dong-seok is such a hulking, impressive looking badass that it’s hard to really feel like any threat is viable against him. Unless we start introducing super soldiers into the mix, any criminal is going to come off as an underdog against Seok-do.

I realize that is a part of the series’ charm: to see an unstoppable badass crush irredeemable villains. But when you’re on the fourth installment, I feel some change has to be made in that department. Either bring in someone who can match Seok-do or at least hold up better against him, or if you can’t build a credible physical threat (understandable, considering the actor’s the size of a two-ton truck), have a villain that challenges him intellectually or politically.

The Roundup: Punishment Trailer (Capelight Pictures)

In addition, while the positives I mentioned above do keep the film entertaining enough for the main lead’s charm to carry through, it also means if you can’t get on board with that primary charm, the film’s going to feel a lot more empty. Then you’ll end up noticing its paper-thin story, lack of any real deep arcs, or some plot holes and conveniences that will further take you out of the experience. As the series continued, the Ma Dong-seok magic has lost some of its initial spark, and thus the aforementioned downsides have become a lot more noticeable.

In the end, when I score the films I review, I do so on the basis of how much I was immersed and enjoying myself with it. And on that front, The Roundup: Punishment is solid. But that doesn’t mean I don’t realize how this sort of movie, and to that extent, Ma Dong-seok’s primary filmography, won’t work for others who are less forgiving of the typecast format. Even I recognize that despite being a fun time, The Roundup series needs to change soon. I hear there are 2~3 more films planned in this franchise, and I can only hope those can keep up the Ma Dong-seok formula strong, and not let it run itself into the ground.

The Roundup: Punishment is out now globally in theaters.

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