The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil ★★★

In a strange way, watching a mediocre Korean thriller is almost as exhilarating as watching any of the legitimately great ones the country’s film industry continues to churn out — it’s wild to see how standards have gotten high enough that even a rambunctious serial killer saga with an ingenious premise and a swaggering Ma Dong-seok performance can still feel like something of a disappointment.

Such is the case with Lee Won-tae’s “The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil,” a giddy little bruiser that might feel like more of a refreshing kick to the chest if not for how much tamer it is than “The Good, the Bad, the Weird,” or how poor the plotting is when compared to a recent crime saga like 2013’s riveting “New World” (to name just two of the many superior movies that also happen to boast Ma’s barrel-chested charm). So while it’s tempting to go easy on this frequently electric film, and forgive it for not living up to its full potential, the most satisfying thing about Lee’s spotty underworld adventure is the sense that we’ve been conditioned to expect better.

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