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‘The Roundup’ Star Don Lee on Plans to Expand the Action-Packed Franchise

Feb 26, 2024
  • Source by Variety
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‘The Roundup’ Star Don Lee on Plans to Expand the Action-Packed Franchise: ‘I Need to Entertain More People’


Big Punch Pictures, B.A. Entertainment, Hong Film. 


In Berlin with “The Roundup: Punishment,” part four of the action movie series that he created and stars in, the larger-than-life Korean American Don Lee finds himself simultaneously in multiple timely and lucrative businesses.


These include the Marvel superhero business, the Korea-to-Hollywood remake business, “The Roundup” franchise and its multiple spinoff possibilities. Lee may even be in the business of saving Korean cinema, which is currently having one of its periodic wobbles.


“What we have to do is make really, really fun entertaining movies. Put them in cinemas, so that everyone will come back to the theaters. One of my goals is to entertain more people,” Lee told Variety on the fringes of the Berlin Film Festival, where “Punishment” has its world premiere as an out-of-competition gala screening.


The second element of the franchise, “The Roundup,” earned $99 million in 2022, making it Korea’s highest grossing movie that year, while last year’s “No Way Out” came close to a repeat and was the second-biggest.


“Punishment” has many of the same elements: violent and unprincipled bad guys, a blur of Asian locations, and Lee’s unpolished cop character (Ma Seok-do, a play on Lee’s Korean name Ma Dong-seok). Ma wears his white sneakers and crumpled leather jacket as badges of down-to-earth honor and does not hesitate to unload his monstrous punching power at 10-minute intervals.


The humor in “Punishment” comes from Ma being repeatedly shown as out of his depth in the world of computer crime. But, with determination and heart as big as his fists, Ma is able to rally his team, round up the bandits and break plenty of heads along the way.


“I want the action to evolve [from film to film] and the story to keep up with current times,” said Lee. “It’s important that the characters evolve further, becoming wiser with each sequel.”


Lee emigrated from Korea to the U.S. with his family in 1989, took up boxing at school and was introduced to acting through church. While also earning a living as a fitness trainer, Lee auditioned and landed his first film role – back in Korea – in 2002. Smallish roles followed until his breakout in 2016 in “Train to Busan,” a stylish vampire action thriller that became a pan-Asian hit.


That film gave him the financial means to power up The Roundup into a fully-fledged franchise, but Lee had already been working on beefing up his filmmaking strengths. He earned a Baek Sang Arts Award for best newcomer in 2012 mystery-thriller “Neighbours” and says that film also marked his first production and adaptation roles – albeit uncredited.


There were other signs that Lee was not going to be limited to a singular activity. “Although his appearance in the 2014 hit crime action film ‘Veteran’ was only a cameo, [Lee’s] performance as the delicate manager of a stationery shop went a long way towards establishing him as an actor who is self-aware, [understands] his image and knows how to play off it,” says the Korean Film Council (Kofic). He was also developing The Roundup.


“Around ten years ago, I met up with profilers and detectives in Korea and listened to their stories, actual cases. I homed in on around ten cases [for development] and selected eight of them to make as a franchise,” said Lee. The 2017 title “The Outlaws,” which earned $42 million in box office, was the first of The Roundup titles.


The franchise is now keeping Lee busy. He arrived in Berlin for the premiere of part four, having just flown in from Japan for the commercial launch of part three – “No Way Out,” which last year earned $78 million for Lee’s Big Punch company and regular partners B.A. Entertainment and Hong Films. “We are now working simultaneously on the screenplays for ‘The Roundup’ five, six, seven and eight,” says Lee.


And, such is the IP’s commercial power that Lee foresees The Roundup as a multi-faceted business empire. “As well as the sequels we’re looking at making it into a TV series or making a version for foreign markets. I’m also dreaming of expanding the detective action film genre, making spin-offs and maybe even shooting in Berlin,” he says.


With his Gorilla 8 Productions company in the U.S. and his role as Gilgamesh in 2021 Marvel film “Eternals,” Lee’s overseas interests are also considerable.


“I still have a project left for Marvel. Also ‘The Gangster, the Cop, the Devil,’ which I’m remaking with Sylvester Stallone. And then I’m getting ready for something called ‘Non Stop,’ which is an actual franchise where Asian martial art actors [‘The Raid’ star] Iko Uwais, [‘Ong Bak’ star Tony Jaa] and Jet Li – get together in one movie,” says Lee.


If part of Lee’s popular appeal is the seemingly thin line between his tough-but-fair onscreen persona and his personality off-screen, the latter is amplified by Lee’s easy, frequent and direct communication skills.


“One day, I saw a reply to one of my Instagram postings from a guy who said that he didn’t have anything going on his life and that nothing was able to make him happy, until he saw my Instagram and started laughing. I thought maybe I should entertain more people,” he says.


Only a couple of day ago, as he got on the plane from Tokyo to Berlin, Lee set off another social media frenzy by appending a Hello Kitty cover to his mobile phone. “That came from my wife. She gives me lot of ideas,” says Lee.


Written by Patrick Frater

Link: https://variety.com/2024/film/asia/don-lee-roundup-punishment-eternals-1235919495/

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