'The Outlaws': A Confident, Near-Flawless Crime Thriller From Newcomer Kang Yun-Sung [Fantasia Film Festival]

Remember the name Kang Yoon-Seong, writer and director of South Korea's damn near flawless gangster war-wager The Outlaws. His how-the-hell-is-this-a-feature-debut bursts through the screen like if the Kool-Aid Man was hightailing it from hordes of rough-and-tumble delinquents. Each interrogation, high-intensity scuffle and frantic chase explodes with action-packed fury as Ma Dong-seok (aka Don Lee) steps into spotlight stardom after graduating from support-level zombie bashin' in Train To Busan (burly enough to play "the train" itself). Two hours long and worth every swagger-steppin' frame. You're hard pressed to find a more accomplished, confident and effortless first-time feature – South Korean or not.

The year is 2004. Seoul's "Serious Crimes" agents have made it their goal to crack down on rampant Chinese-Korean underworld corruption. Multiple clans clash over the Garibong district's territorial boundaries, but brick shithouse Inspector Ma Seok-do (Ma Dong-seok) can ruggedly keep the peace without much effort. A quick drop-in with bosses or an accepted bribe, perhaps. That's until the Black Dragon boys come to town with intent to overtake. Ponytailed debt collector Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) starts small – payment brutalization – before challenging Venom's boss and ultimately assuming lead control. Now, with an army and racket, Jang sets his sights outwards – which Ma Seok-do refuses to tolerate.

Cops vs. Criminals. Good vs. Evil. Man vs. Man. However you slice it, the thunder is primed to come crashing down. Chen's rolling, stampeding, leave-a-wake-of-sliced-up-bodies kind of hurricane.

Yoon-Seong recreates "bad man" charisma along the lines of Michael Mann or Martin Scorsese (US-audience comparison, for you). Lines are blurry, crooked and coy. We're just as "sympathetic" to – or at least enthralled by – the karaoke district don's plight as we are Seok-do's bulldog approach to justice. The Outlaws is more about vendettas, greed and a modern day western rule where cowboys wear blazers or The Gangs Of New York comes to life with only a few years of separation. Lawmen act with unbuttoned collars, smash-'em-up methods and none of that stuffy "by the books" crap we get in our televised serials. Not to say 100% accuracy is achieved in this regard, but it makes for such good storytelling – and rampant use of the "c" word (more internationally acceptable, methinks).

Can we talk about South Korea's patron saint of punishment, Ma Dong-seok? This lumbering muscle cluster's slap would knock Andre The Giant out cold, yet Dong-seok's witty inclinations are just as fierce when the situation calls for razor-sharp humor. Imposition is Ma Seok-do's physical signature, but his squad of street-smart undercover operatives is a gallant bunch of do-gooders who relish their "unprofessional" methods. Seok-do running the show, sitting angry mob leaders down for tea and forcing them to take Polaroid photos with arms shoulder-flung. He's this modern day Robin Hood who steals from the rich (cutthroat bosses/his own captain) and gives to the poor (don't mess with his local purveyors or street merchants). An unstoppable monster of the screen who smacks, brawls and outsmarts The Outlaws into submission.

Equally enthralling is the prevalence of agreed-upon boundaries, Chinese-Korean allegiances with black market intent and the existence of multiple "Venom" or "Isu" syndicates. Specifically, Jang Chen's hatchet mutiny. He infects Seoul's entire criminal subculture like a plague, dismantling one clan and then spreading outward. Yoon Kye-Sang slithers his way through near arrests and rival assassination attempts, always more diabolically motivated as if he feeds off being threatened. Be it by Isu's gambling arcade monopoly, Venom's Chinese woman import service or Hwang's entertainment host claims, each sect protects and values their own specialty which means nothing to the tough-love newcomer. Enter Ma Seok-do, who's forced into "teaming" with the bad guys who can help him as other gangs form alliances against Jang themselves.

The Outlaws Review

Even though The Outlaws is set in 2004, firearms and ammunition are rarely blasted (if at all?). Ma Seok-do squeezes hands until bones crumble or snaps limbs like they're toothpicks as his preferred method of judicial restraint. Black Dragon favors blades, Venom carry around pipes – action aligns with Korean martial arts duke-outs featuring large henchmen numbers. Airport bathrooms become piles of soaked glass shards, cars drive through "casino" walls – it's all so destructively exciting. Energy is at a maximum as blades are swiped under necks or runners scale city rooftops as a means of escape, mainly because we then get to witness Dong-seok punish criminals who force him into cardio exertion before laying them the HELL out with a well-timed punch.

Not to be forgotten is an air of jubilance that never oversaturates with gloomy melodramatics or weighs via "gritty" police drama generics. Ma Dong-seok is *so good* at dropping sarcasm and abusing his power when arrested individuals do not cooperate as instructed. Maybe it's a trip to the "Truth Room" – paper-thin "walls" cover his pounding on a criminal's motorcycle-helmet-guarded dome Donkey Kong style – or continually duping Isu/Venom top dogs into paying for his meals ("You get the bill") ON TOP OF OCCASION ALL-NIGHT KARAOKE ROOM BINGES. The Outlaws is bloody, black-and-blue, covered in scars – but it's also an absolute riot be it Black Dragon sadistics or Dong-seok's gorilla-sized comedics. An odd type of film to classify as "a blast," but here we are.

Come for an oh-so-savvy "mop-up" plan to scrub the scum from Seoul's underbelly, stay for the knife play and fists of fury, and be pleasantly surprised each time Ma Dong-seok holsters his meaty paws in favor of another hilarious and degrading whoopin'. Kang Yoon-Seong sells the composition of legends in this tightly wound anti-procedural run amok, notching a debut that promises nothing but the brightest cinematic future. Screen this right alongside The Departed or any other adored "cops and mobsters" content with zero hesitation. There's so much to love as missions collapse and back alley rules become king with not an ounce of wasted potential. As exhilarating a thriller you'll be pressed to find in this or any calendar year.

/Film Review: 9 out of 10