The Roundup: No Way Out: Don Lee Threequel Likened To Korean Fast & Furious Is Winning Big At The Local Box Office

Welcome to Global Breakouts, Deadline’s fortnightly strand in which we shine a spotlight on the TV shows and films killing it in their local territories. The industry is as globalized as it’s ever been, but breakout hits are appearing in pockets of the world all the time and it can be hard to keep track… So, we’re going to do the hard work for you.

This week we’re featuring South Korean smash The Roundup: No Way Out, the third installment of crime action franchise The Outlaws which was originated by and stars Don Lee (aka Ma Dong-seok) who also produces. A runaway hit in its home market, it has provided a major shot in the arm to the local box office which has been stuck in the doldrums so far this year; and there is much more to come for what Lee likens to a sort of Korean Fast & Furious saga.

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Name: The Roundup: No Way Out

Country: South Korea

Producers: Big Punch Pictures, BA Entertainment, Hong Film

International sales: K-Movie Entertainment

For fans of: The Gangster, The Cop, The Devil, Train to Busan

With an incredible $62 million amassed at the Korean box office, and 8 million tickets sold since its release on May 31, The Roundup: No Way Out is a bonafide smash that’s already the No. 1 film of 2023 in the market, 39% ahead of the next title on the list, 343% more than the next local movie and outpacing Hollywood films. Whether it can overtake last year’s The Roundup ($103 million/12.7 million admissions) remains to be seen, though speculation feels it could have a chance. Another sequel, The Roundup: Punishment, is due in 2024 and scripts are being worked on for the fifth and sixth films. A further two are committed to be produced while there are also thoughts of spin-offs, TV series, and, potentially, a Hollywood remake.

Directed by Lee Sang-yong, The Roundup: No Way Out was released via Capelight Pictures on 41 screens in North America on June 2, grossing just under $500,000. It is carrying a 100% fresh score from critics on Rotten Tomatoes and 90% from audiences (to be fair, this is from a small sampling). Still, it’s got plenty of rollout ahead, having pre-sold to 158 countries, according to distributor ABO Entertainment. There have been a handful of offshore releases with many more to come.

Lee is a Korean-American multi-hyphenate who has been acting since 2005 and broke out with 2016 zombie smash Train to Busan. He has seen his career speed along ever since (his Hollywood break came with Disney/Marvel’s Eternals, as Gilgamesh). The story of The Roundup: No Way Out catches up with his Detective Ma Seok-do seven years after the events of the previous film as he joins the violent crime investigation unit in Seoul. While working a homicide case with his new teammates, he discovers the crime is connected to a new type of drug. Meanwhile, the mastermind behind the drug smuggling ring, Seong-cheol (Lee Jun-hyuk), is trying to grow his business, but a Japanese organization also enters the competitive market.

Korea has one of the most robust local industries in the world, with a rich talent pool and sophisticated audiences, but box office has been in a slump, particularly for homegrown fare. In early June, according to data from the Korean Film Council, the market share of Korean movies in May had fallen below 20%. That was the lowest-ever score for the month of May since KOFIC started compiling figures in 2004, save for the pandemic period of 2020-2022, Yonhap reported. Tickets sold last month were just 34% of the average admissions for May from 2017-2019, even as imports recovered to nearly 90% of pre-pandemic levels.

So, what’s the key to this particular series of movies and its resonance for local audiences? Lee tells Deadline, “We believe the cathartic impact these entertaining action films provide is what resonates most with audiences, and we build the characters and stories for that central purpose. My team and I invest a tremendous amount of time and thought into re-working each story, constantly revising the script… Because the dichotomy of good and evil is clear and simple, the storytelling process needs to be fun, requiring strong development – the pace and action are two extremely important components in this story building process.” 

In particular, he adds, “The action is one of the most critical elements of these films, specifically the sequences created together with my stunt team. I am constantly brainstorming and working closely with Heo Myung-haeng and his team.” Heo is an action director who has worked with Lee for 20 years – including on Train to Busan – and he will take over directing duties for the next Roundup film. Lee tells us that the upcoming movie “is a complete shift in tone and emotional arc from the third film, with even more refreshing and satisfying boxing and action scenes.”

Lee has trained as a boxer for over 30 years and notes, “There are various techniques used in real sparring and matches that are dangerous or difficult to implement in movies, especially if one doesn’t actually know how to box. We’re always working hard to evolve and create the right moves for the screen to deliver authentic and powerful action.”

‘Fast & Furious’

The commitment of the man who has previously likened the movies to Universal’s Fast & Furious franchise is evident: “I put my whole life’s expertise, passion, and knowledge into this franchise, pouring in my soul, blood, sweat and bones, which I hope audiences can see and feel on screen,” he adds.

What does the global success of this franchise mean to Lee? “Everything,” he says. Noting the presales and critical reactions, on No Way Out, he adds, “It’s just an incredible response to our film considering that this was released theatrically instead of on an OTT platform.”

He adds, “Films are a wonderful form of art that many people from all over the world can enjoy, transcending language and cultural barriers. When audiences continue to watch The Roundup films, I hope they will not only enjoy the exhilarating action, but also take away the positive and hopeful message that criminals will always be brought to justice.”

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