Directed by: Lee Sang-yong
Distributed by: Capelight Pictures
Written by Christopher Cross
If Ma Dong-seok’s background as an aspiring boxer wasn’t apparent enough, his overpowering physical presence in “The Roundup: No Way Out” makes it abundantly clear. With a much quicker turnaround from 2022’s “The Roundup” than the 5-year gap between that film and its predecessor, 2017’s “The Outlaws,” Lee Sang-yong returns to the director’s chair to craft another sturdy procedural that moves into autopilot and lets its cast inject “The Roundup: No Way Out” with just enough energy to overcome its repetitive and boilerplate narrative.
The cracks in this Korean crime-action franchise are finally beginning to show, thanks to a case of driving the series’ charms into the ground. The foundations of “The Roundup: No Way Out” are solid enough to hold their own due to the previous two films establishing Detective Ma Seok-do (played by Ma Dong-seok) as a police officer who would rather solve a case with his fists first and whose actions stress the boundaries of right and wrong if the ends justify the means. This might be the first film franchise completely defined by its lead actor’s ability to knock someone out with a single punch.
The camaraderie established in the previous two films is retained between Ma and his fellow officers, though the characters themselves are largely changed – seven years have passed since the previous film’s events which gives the characters time to have found a groove alongside Ma’s no-nonsense methodology. This is where “The Roundup: No Way Out” begins showing the franchise’s cracks, as new characters fit into established roles the film settles into an overly safe if comforting rhythm.
It doesn’t help that Kim Min-sung’s screenplay lacks variety and originality. A synthetic drug has begun spreading on the streets of Korea and as Detective Ma becomes entangled in the investigation, he is confronted with new villains, such as Joo Sung-chul (Lee Jun-hyuk) and Yakuza member Ricky (Aoki Munetaka). When a significant amount of drugs go missing, the chase is on, and Detective Ma finds himself chasing both the drugs and a trail of bodies left in each criminal’s wake.
The introduction of a character like Ricky–who enters every scene with a thirst for violence and a sword to help accomplish that–arguably contains the most interesting wrinkle to The Roundup franchise. Where the last film took Detective Ma to Vietnam, where he was forced to work within another country’s legal system, “The Roundup: No Way Out” brings the foreign element to Ma’s front doorstep. It’s a potentially exciting idea, accentuated by the incorporation of Ricky’s samurai sword into action sequences and various foreign interests lining up to get in on the lucrative drug operation.
However, all interesting ideas start and stop there. “The Roundup: No Way Out” builds every action scene with one governing philosophy: Detective Ma will always want to throw hands. The previous films understood that Ma Dong-seok is a charismatic force of nature who is just as endearing and funny as he is a powerhouse. Unfortunately, almost every action sequence in “No Way Out” ends as soon as it begins. Ma’s fists have become the star of the film, to the point where they are acknowledged and joked about. Setpieces don’t carry the same aggression and adrenaline as they did in the past due to the speed with which Ma dispatches his enemies.
The end result is that there’s never tension in the film. Even a villain like Joo Sung-chul, who is immediately established as a cold-blooded killer trying to maintain composure as his ambition exceeds his grasp, is uninteresting. The performance, particularly against Ma’s and Munetaka’s, is enrapturing, but the actual motivations behind his character are generic and predictable. What lessens the tension with the audience is that his role in the drug operation and identity is kept a mystery to the characters while spelled out to the audience.
Its decisions like that in the screenplay that, along with an overuse of clubs as a setting for brawls, highlight a risk-averse approach to the franchise. Taken on its own, “The Roundup: No Way Out” remains entertaining thanks to its cast, and the fact that watching Ma Dong-seok systematically knock out a room full of bad guys is endlessly enjoyable. Supported by Ma’s well-kept composure and dry humor, each punch still gives a jolt of adrenaline. The clean impact of a fist juxtaposed against the messy bloodshed surrounding Detective Ma still provides a solid entry within this surprisingly successful franchise.
Three films in and a fourth on the way, it’s somewhat reassuring to see movies like “The Roundup: No Way Out” still be financially successful. While it would be endearing to see the film punch above its weight, there’s nothing wrong with a series knowing its charms and leaning into them. The procedural plotting is amplified by Lee’s slick direction and Ma’s inimitable presence, leaving “The Roundup: No Way Out” as an entertaining crime film brought down by a lack of creativity. It’s a franchise that has latched onto a successful formula but might not be able to sustain itself for much longer.
“The Roundup: No Way Out” Trailer
Christopher Cross is a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic with a Bachelor’s degree in Communications from Simon Fraser University. You can find more of his writing on his website and follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Substack, or Letterboxd for more of his thoughts.