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That Demon Within
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by Jay Seaver

"A packed psychological cops & robbers thriller."
5 stars

You can tell from the opening moments of "That Demon Within" that it's not going to be your standard cops 'n robbers movie, and it's sure not going to stand out for how grounded and realistic it is. This is Hong Kong, and while they may not have invented the operatic crime drama, they do it like no-one else, and nobody is doing it bigger than Dante Lam right now. Like they say, bigger doesn't always mean better, but this is one case where going for it yields something pretty great

The demon of the title is Hon Kong (Nick Cheung Ka-fai), an infamous and ruthless leader of a gang of armed robbers known as "The Demon King" and the obsession of soon-to-retire Inspector Mok (Dominc Lam Ka-wah), and whose latest score is a fortune in diamonds, the sort that gets crooks at each others' throats, even when their wounded leader is more trustworthy. Or is he? Uniformed policeman David Wong (Daniel Wu Yin-cho) is wracked with guilt over the fact that he gave Hon a blood transfusion in the hospital, and while his former academy classmate and new captain (Christie Chen Si-xuan) notes there isn't a blemish on Wong's record, those who worked with him say that his many transfers have been due to personality issues.

And, yes, David certainly has personality issues; he mentions in his opening narration that he appreciates the low-key nature of his job manning the police post in a hospital, and when he's on the other end of the transfusion tube from Hon, he sees the man as almost a monster - well before he has any reason to know he's a criminal. But just in case you miss that, Lam is going to make sure that you know that David is not all right with bombastic music, screens that take on a red cast, grainy flashbacks, and any other signal he can give. Oh, it ramps up, especially on the pressure on the officer grows, but whenever Lam and co-writer Jack Ng Wai-lun bring the audience inside David Wong's head, it's very clear that this is a place fraught with danger.

That's not the only place that they are going big, though. The opening sequence of Hon and his gang preparing for and then executing their robbery is kind of amazing for both just how good it looks (art director Lee Kin-wai's department does a fine job on the gang's demon masks and cinematographer Kenny Tse Chung-to makes everything look good) and how brazenly the villains embrace their role. It's wonderfully heightened, because Lam and company aren't going to let the fact that certain characters are making moral compromises make the bad guys sympathetic, with a couple doing something just extra special despicable to drive this home. There is also some pretty fantastic action, from a brazen and exciting daylight robbery close to the start to a finale that is just so gloriously over-the-top as to make the audience wonder if it has just detached from reality. There's a little bit of digital faking it to be seen there, but the wow-worthiness of the thing makes it no big deal.

There's a lot of good action because Lam and Ng keep the characters busy. While the story never strays far from David and his rapidly mounting issues, it's not introspective about it - there's enough going on with Hon and his five partners in crime, as well as Mok's group, plus the issues Dave is facing at home with his granny (Fung So-po) in failing health but being harassed by local punks to populate a couple of crime movies. Even if they don't necessarily all tie up into a single knot by the end, they are all connected rather than just ways to stall for time or get to action bits. As much as That Demon Within is a psychological thriller, it spends much more time moving the story along by having its characters do things rather than talk about them.

The cast is up for the challenge as well, with Daniel Wu Yin-cho in particular handling everything that's asked of him. David's got to be a little weird and off from the start, but still a guy the audience can pull for, and Wu does a nice job of finding spots on the line between "socially awkward" and "a ticking time bomb" as the film goes on. Meanwhile, Nick Cheung Ka-fai and Dominic Lam Ka-wah push their criminal/detective parts to be big and iconic without tipping over into scenery-chewing; they'd be fun in a movie of their own. Andy On Chi-kit is, admittedly, just kind of solid in his part (one would hope his capable cop on the take would be a more interesting contrast to David), but I like the way the filmmakers have Christie Chen Si-xuan play Liz as more invested in her old friend than some of the other men under her command but not playing up any sort of romance.

"That Demon Within" is bombastic enough that you may expect that, and it doesn't aim to hide that - by the end of the movie, the music is blaring, the screen is tinted red, and a character's face is reflected in his gun. That may be a little (or a lot) flashier than some folks like their cop movies, but I love the energy Dante Lam gives this. It's bloody, exciting, and even fairly smart; what more do you want from a movie like this?

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originally posted: 04/21/14 00:27:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Berlin Film Festival For more in the 2014 Berlin Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Dante Lam

Written by
  Wai Lun Ng
  Dante Lam

  Daniel Wu
  Nick Cheung
  Andy On
  Kai Chi Liu
  Ka Wah Lam
  Kwok-Lun Lee

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