Credit: Blue Fox Entertainment
by Joshua Polanski Featured Film Genre Views

The Roundup: Punishment — Heo Myeong-haeng

May 1, 2024

Four films into any series, you either change or die, and the copaganda finally outruns the action choreography in the fourth installment in The Roundup series. The wild box office success of the series, the most successful action enterprise in the history of the South Korean box office, will survive at least a bit longer, and that’s to the credit of the filmmakers, or perhaps the series’ showrunner and leading man Ma Dong-seok (as Detective Ma Seok-do). This time around, the now dried-up formula of gangbusting reinvigorates faintly with the introduction of limitations to Seok-do’s fists. He can’t punch his way through many of the tech problems and cyber crime that find their way to his Homicide Division as Punishment moves the gangs and crime syndicates fully into the 21st century with their use of open source apps and cloud storage, in addition to tactical knives and handguns.

The changes, unfortunately, don’t make up for the relentless copaganda that gets harder and harder to swallow with every film. Seok-do’s default impulse is a haymaker or a series of alternating hooks; one won’t find dialogue or sympathy in his professional toolkit. When he transgresses the legal process with excessive force to catch the bad guys, unlike Jackie Chan’s character in the Police Story series or Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt in Mission Impossible, he’s rewarded, not reprimanded — or, more often, the various directors in the series play it for a laugh. At a certain point, his use of excessive force loses its value as entertainment and begins to feel perturbing. One positive movement in Punishment is the jettisoning of Seok-do’s habit of sexually assaulting Jang Yi-soo (Park Ji-hwan) by grabbing his balls and forcibly conscripting the former gangster to aid the police; the character returns, but he’s allowed to be funny on his own rather than just being a body to which Seok-do does “funny” things.

The specific scenario this time revolves around Baek Chang-ki (Kim Mu-yeol), the head of an international gambling empire with a mercenary background. Everything starts off in the Philippines, but this is no globetrotting action film; the series has largely avoided making that kind of fighting film so far. We only see a small bit of the Philippines, and everything we do see amounts to a title card that precedes a scene set in a warehouse where the bad guys run an online and offshore, illegally sourced gambling empire. They also kill people, which is supposed to make it okay when the excessive force of the police ends the lives of Korean citizens.

In previous iterations of the character, the novelty and singularity of the action stardom that is Ma Seok-do covered up enough of the series’ problems that one didn’t have to squint quite so hard to enjoy the vicious, almost pulpy, action. Previous villains also helped out by being realized as stronger caricatures of evil. But the choreography in Punishment unexpectedly takes a step back from earlier entries in the hands of the experienced stunt person and fight choreographer Heo Myung-haeng, who made his directorial debut earlier this year with Badland Hunters. Ma’s signature punches seem to be the only type of violence Heo’s interested in, at least until the very end when he uses his legs and knees in the airplane fight. Meanwhile, the knifework doesn’t compel in the slightest, and the guns bore. And, as much as anyone may love to see Ma’s big hands smashing fools with ferocity, sometimes too much of a good thing is in fact too much.

The final fight glimpses a better way forward for future installments. For the first time that this critic can recall in the four films, Seok-do encounters a limitation to the problems that his body can solve physically. He bleeds and weakens like us normal humans. Baek even puts a knife through the very symbol of his power (and, as such, his use of excessive force): his fist. A mortal and vulnerable Detective Ma Seok-do may be exactly any future Roundup films need in order to commence a complete revival.

DIRECTOR: Heo Myeong-haeng;  CAST: Ma Dong-seok, Kim Moo-yul, Park Ji-hwan, Lee Dong-hwi;  DISTRIBUTOR: Blue Fox Entertainment/Capelight Pictures;  IN THEATERS: May 3;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 49 min.