Starring Don Lee (Ma Dong-seok), Yoon Kye-sang, Cho Chae-yun, Choi Guy-hwa, Jin Seon-kyu
Written by Yoon-Seong Kang
Directed by Yoon-Seong Kang
Packing an unfathomable amount of blood-soaked action set pieces into a 2-hour runtime, The Outlaws is everything you’d want from a violent Korean gangster film. Based on a true crime story, the movie pits the Geumcheon Serious Crimes Unit, a gaggle of goofy yet tough-and-ready cops, against the Black Dragon street gang from China. Black Dragon has terrorized local shop-owners in the Garibong neighborhood, which is heavily populated by working-class, Chinese immigrants. Leading the Special Crimes Unit is Inspector Ma Dong-seok (Don Lee), with Jang Chen (Yoon Kye-sang) acting as his criminal counterpart from Black Dragon. The film tantalizingly builds up to a final confrontation between these two powerhouses of cool.
Don Lee simply makes every scene amusing. Whether he’s ordering half a restaurant’s menu and making someone else pay for it, or immediately punching an idiot in the face the moment he steps into the room, Lee is the shit. After his memorable appearance in Train to Busan and his dominating performance in The Outlaws, I hope we’re treated to more genre films featuring Lee’s bulky frame and casual wit.
In contrast to Lee, Yoon Kye-sang is lean and elegant, but equally as commanding on screen as the menacing gang leader. Careful composition and atmospheric lighting capitalize on his muted-yet-still-charismatic portrayal of the demented Jang. An off-kilter smile across a shadowy face. A frame that draws your eyes straight to his. Skilled cinematography paired with a powerful performance make Yoon Kye-sang’s presence linger even in the scenes he does not occupy.
There’s a convoluted web of gangster happenings running amok throughout the runtime, with law enforcement always one step behind the criminal plots. The myriad of shifting alliances and surprise back-stabbings (in this case, literal—seriously, people actually wear stab-proof vests) are primarily vehicles for kick-ass action sequences. The Outlaws treats us to vicious murders by hatchet, compacted street fights, torturous interrogations, and even a wedding ceremony that gets savaged by one mean motherfucker with a fire extinguisher.
What elevates The Outlaws above other gangster films is the nuanced lens through which the action unfolds. There’s no getting around the fact that this is a violent film. However, the camera doesn’t dwell on brutality in an overindulgent way. In in one of the film’s first scenes, a man is removed from the trunk of a car and then tortured, but the camera follows Jang while much of the violence occurs in the background. This exemplary shot design exposes how violence has become everyday routine, almost an afterthought, for criminals who see harming others as just another way to bolster their sense of power. Meanwhile, the icy machismo of Inspector Ma is continually softened by a tenderness among him and his co-workers. In between slapping the spit out of num-nuts, he’s ensuring that others are well-fed and even asks a fellow cop to rub lotion on his skin. First-time Writer and Director Yoon-Seong Kang presents a complex violence, contrasting the callousness of street violence with deep strokes of humanity.
Community is ultimately the driving force of the movie. Inspector Ma is incapable of taking down Black Dragon without the help of the meek shopkeepers – no matter how many goons he humiliates. Similarly, Jang can’t stay hidden from the police when the denizens of Garibong risk their lives to cooperate with authorities. In this world, lone wolves never win. True strength is not derived from intimidation, coercion, and brute force; rather, it is fortified from the bond with our community.
Whether you’re down for reading the film with layered criticism or just want to see a badass movie, The Outlaws checks all the boxes…and then obliterates those boxes with a swift kick and a baseball bat.