It takes a lot of moving parts to make a movie’s action work. The choreography, camera placement, and editing all have to be in sync, and you need people who know what they’re doing in front of and behind the camera. But perhaps the most important element is matching a movie’s action style with its stars’ superhuman skills. And there’s no better synergy between a modern action franchise’s fight scenes and its star than the pairing of Korea’s Crime City franchise and burly star Ma Dong-seok.
Ma, also known as Don Lee, has made a career of his charm, comedic delivery, and tree-trunk-like biceps. After years of success in the Korean movie industry, he rose to international attention with his excellent supporting role in Train to Busan, which led Hollywood to come calling, leading to his role as Gilgamesh in Marvel’s Eternals.
His career has reached new heights recently with the Crime City movies, a franchise of action thrillers where Ma plays hard-hitting detective Ma Seok-do. The second entry, The Roundup, was Korea’s highest-grossing domestic movie in 2022, and the newly released third movie, No Way Out, may be the best in the franchise yet. A fourth movie is set to come out in 2024, with many more installments planned.
Returning director Lee Sang-yong knows exactly how to highlight everything that makes Ma special. All three Crime City movies make full use of his jaw-dropping physique, particularly in the way they first introduce him on screen. Each introduction starts with a scene of mayhem in a public place, like a traffic incident that has spilled into a fistfight in the street. Then the camera cuts to Ma’s imposing figure from behind, letting his shoulders take up the entire width of the screen as he strides forward to deliver justice with his palms or fists, resolving the situation so traffic can let up and he can get to work.
Ma, who became the president of the Korean Arm Wrestling Federation in 2018, is unbelievably charming — even as a hard-hitting cop, he’s affable, funny, personable, and occasionally dense in an extraordinarily endearing way. He walks with confidence, and he constantly warns people not to mess with him. His body can fill a frame, but his smile can fill a room.
Ma’s comedic delivery, both in his words and his actions, helps elevate these movies from brutally fun action to all-around rollicking good times. In No Way Out, he walks in on a group of criminals trying a dangerous new drug, and casually asks them to put the drugs in a Ziploc bag while he takes pictures. They robotically obey before they realize they’re incriminating themselves; such is the power of Ma’s physical presence and charisma. When faced with people looking to take him down, he reacts with annoyance more than anything. It’s like he’s disciplining unruly children — who happen to be charging at him with weapons, and need to be disciplined with head-splitting punches.
Now in his 50s, Ma hasn’t slowed down as an action star one bit. His character has aches and pains, stretching out his arms after a long fight or exclaiming “Gosh, I’m tired” in the middle of one. But he moves with surprising quickness for a man of his age and size, and he hits harder than ever.
And the Crime City movies acknowledge that those punches are the real main attraction. Ma was once an aspiring boxer himself, and it shows in his smooth movements and impeccable form. He has jaw-droppingly massive fists and arms, and he hits harder than any other action star working today. While his massive physique suggests his power on its own, No Way Out director Lee also knows how to highlight Ma’s unique characteristics. Lee’s camera moves with the action and follows the punches, accentuating the blows for maximum impact. When Ma fells a particularly big opponent, the camera shakes as if there was an earthquake.
Adding to the kinetic camerawork is No Way Out’s sensational foley work, which amplifies every blow — the combined effect makes it feel like Ma is slugging bad guys with a truck, not his fists. The punches hit loud, but crucially, so do the misses — when fists or knives whiff, the air whooshes with the force and danger of the strikes. When Ma makes contact, though, the recipient goes flying.
The series does have the tired trope of “good cop restrained by pesky human rights concerns,” including a gag in No Way Out where Ma and fellow officers come up with creative ways to cover the camera while beating someone they’re questioning. These movies live in the shared fantasy world of many police movies where cops only question bad people who deserve whatever extralegal punishment they get. If you have the patience for that archaic idea, you’ll be rewarded with one of the best action series being made today.
You don’t need to watch the previous Crime City movies to follow No Way Out, but you should, because they rule, and any excuse to watch Ma Dong-seok punching fools is a good one. His years of training as a movie star and as a boxer pay off in this series, and the people behind the camera know how to use it to maximum advantage. As these movies continue to show, that’s a recipe for success.
The Roundup: No Way Out is now in theaters. The first movie in the franchise, The Outlaws, is streaming on Viki, free with ads on Tubi, and rentable on Amazon. You can stream the second movie, The Roundup, on Viki; watch it free with ads on Tubi, Plex, and FreeVee; or rent it on Amazon.