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Robbery (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"Everything goes wrong, so everything goes right."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2015 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: "Robbery" is one of several movies in the festival that I didn't expect to be nearly as funny as it wound up being, and unlike "He Never Died", this is full-out anything goes material, going for the big laugh at every opportunity and mostly getting them, even if this is a very crude, violent Hong Kong comedy and some bits are in questionable taste. Well, actually, no, not questionable - this film is tacky through and through.

The place being robbed is a convenience store where lifelong loser Lau Kin-ping (Derek Tsang Kwok-cheung) has just started working, though neither he nor his co-worker Mabel (J. Arie) is exactly a model employee - though to be fair, their boss (Lam Suet) is more than a bit of a tool. It's the latter's crappy service that leads to a cranky, homeless-seeming old guy (Stanley Fung Sui-fan) holding up the store, leading to a hostage situation that is only exacerbated by the arrival of a corrupt cop and his team, a nervous woman who looks like she just ended a shift at the strip club (Anita Cui Pik-ka), her gangster boyfriend, and more, with the whole situation becoming even more absurd and explosive as the night goes on.

Writer/director Lee Ka-wing is credited as "Fire" Lee, and he does more to earn that kind of appellation than, say, Olivier Megaton. He is not the kind of filmmaker who believes in standing quietly back so that the audience can view the film like a real thing unfolding before their eyes, but one who is going to take detours into fantasy, flashbacks, and fourth-wall breaking. From the opening credits forward, he's making sure that if, for some reason, the actual events of the film aren't grabbing the audience's attention, the style will, from how lighting a cigarette will take a scene from noir to garish neon to hitting rewind.

For all that he's clearly putting a lot of effort into making things flashy and darn slick, Lee handles the fundamentals underneath very well. He uses the space of the "Exceed" convenience store where most of the action takes place expertly, laying it out for the audience without giving a tour and making sure that it both gives scenes a little room to breathe while forcing everyone to be on top of each other when need be. Even before Ping arrives at Exceed, everything leading him there is a niftily designed location built to look neat but also box Ping in. Lee upends situations gleefully, keeping what's going on in a constant state of flux, and as a result hiding events that the audience maybe should have given more attention amid the general strangeness. And yet, despite all the blood flying and people turning on each other, the audience only briefly gets lost, and while there maybe isn't quite a heart of gold underneath, there are plenty of bits that keep the film from being the completely-vicious environment that some of its characters would consider the entire world.

The cast may not be filled with A-listers, but it's a group that's well-suited to this sort of material. Derek Tsang is a guy who occasionally plays a conventional leading man, but he's drawn to this sort of weird material whether before or behind the camera. His charisma is actually sort of a negative here - he's much too appealing for audiences to really buy the film's constant descriptions of Ping as a loser, although his sharp comic delivery more than makes up for it. J. Arie does a better job of sneaking up on people, surprising with her initial goofiness, growing from a piece of the comic ensemble to heart of the film as things go on. Stanley Fung and Lam Suet, both veteran character actors, are tremendously funny, and every member of the cast makes a good contribution.

There was a bit of grumbling about the very end - it's a twist that requires the rest of the movie to actually be a lot more carefully planned than the anarchy it seems to be - but I'd be willing to sit through it again to see how it all connects. I laughed pretty hard, and if the film is as clever as it is funny, it will be a real stand-out when it opens internationally.

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originally posted: 08/31/15 12:32:29
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival For more in the 2015 Hawaii International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Fire Lee

Written by
  Fire Lee
  Frankie Tam
  Xin He

  Derek Tsang
  Suet Lam
  J. Arie
  Ken Low
  Philip Keung

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