MAY 14 — Note: This article contains spoilers for the movie The Roundup: Punishment so do not proceed further if you have not watched it and plan to.

I first saw Don Lee in Marvel’s Eternals three years ago. At the time he was practically unknown and I’d never have gone to a cinema specifically to see him in a movie.

But last week I couldn’t wait to watch The Roundup: Punishment, the fourth instalment in a series (which began with a movie called the The Outlaws) which is virtually synonymous with Lee.

I’ve watched the other three films and I have to say I’ve been hooked since the second one and hope very much that this series can top Fast & Furious’ 10 instalments!

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As of early May, The Roundup: Punishment has already officially reached a total of 9,007,218 moviegoers at the Korean box office. It’s now become the fastest film in the series to hit the nine million mark, outpacing both the second movie, The Roundup, (which took 20 days) and the third one The Roundup: No Way Out (21 days).

Additionally, the movie is now the fastest film released in 2024 to reach the milestone, overtaking horror occult film Exhuma (which was also good, in my opinion).

Long and short, I think this series is proof that if something isn’t broken, don’t fix or change anything. I mean, seriously, all four movies are more or less the same movie.

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In all four movies, Don Lee, playing detective Ma Seok-Do (which sounds conveniently similar to his actual Korean name Ma Dong-Seok, see note 1), throws his weight and punches around to defeat the bad guys.

In case anyone doesn’t know, Lee used to be a Mixed-Martial Arts (MMA) practitioner and even trainer. In these movies (just like in Eternals), it’s telling that 99 per cent of his moves are punches with the occasional throw. I don’t recall seeing a single kick.

You could even argue that watching Don Lee punch bad guys is the #1 reason people pay to see his movies. This could make him singularly unique as which other actor has been successful just punching people?

Don Lee (centre) stars in ‘The Roundup: Punishment’. — Screen capture via YouTube/ONE Media
Don Lee (centre) stars in ‘The Roundup: Punishment’. — Screen capture via YouTube/ONE Media

In all four movies, Detective Ma uses “semi-illegal” procedures to get informants to spill the beans and manipulates his superiors’ bungling personalities to cut corners in between having Korean pork BBQ meals with his team.

His colleagues and one or two shady characters (most notably the ultra resourceful but also hilariously gullible Jang I-Soo, played by Park Ji-Hwan) provide the comic relief to the series.

There’s something cinematically infectious about the way Ma barges his way in and out of karaoke joints, pubs and warehouses to confront bad guys or grab evidence. Feels like a satisfying throwback to the old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies where he just goes and does and takes and says and beats up whoever and whatever he wants.

In all four movies, the plot involves inter-Asian crime syndicates. In the first movie, a group of Chinese gangsters takes over vice outlets in Seoul, in the second Korean thugs murder Korean tourists vacationing in Vietnam, in the third a corrupt Korean cop smuggles drugs for a Japanese cartel and in the fourth, a Korean illegal online gambling mob tries to dominate the sector out of their base in the Philippines.

I think this is the most authentic part of the movie, setting it apart from the over-sensational world-domination plots in the James Bond and Mission: Impossible movies.

The issues are real and heart-breaking and the exposure of such tragic cases to an Asian audience is maybe one reason why this series is so well-received. I mean, who knew that good computer programmers can be kidnapped and forced into slave labour on behalf of violent online casino syndicates?

In all four movies, the chief antagonists are brawny dudes who are violent, charming, cruel and don’t use guns — only knives. The production team has to be commended for the strong visceral action scenes which easily rival the violence in movies like Goodfellas and Casino. In all the instalments you get throats being slit, limbs being broken, knives being thrust into bodies; no shortage of realism here.

Anyway, in the latest instalment, Ma is up against the ruthless man of few words, Baek Chang-Gi (played to perfection by Kim Mu-Yeol), originally merely the enforcer for the I.T. genius behind the crypto slash casino empire (played by Lee Dong-Hwi), but who starts taking matters into his own hands after he feels he’s being cheated by the boss.

In all four movies (and I’m sure script writing students will have a laugh over this), the final fist-fight between detective Ma and the bad guy happens just as the bad guy is about to escape. And the fights always ends with an ultimate “smash” by Ma (who, again, never uses a gun or brings a fellow cop to help).

I can’t wait for Detective Ma to show up in Kuala Lumpur — now wouldn’t that be a blast?

* Note 1: This reminds me of Jackie Chan’s 'Police Story' series where Jackie’s supercop character is named, uh, Jackie.

** This is the personal opinion of the columnist.