Hong Kong's reigning champion of pyrotechnic mayhem continues to move outside of his comfort zone with the psychological crime drama That Demon Within, but the results fail to hit the mark as poor plotting, loose direction and an increasingly preposterous script do their best to undermine a spirited central performance from Daniel Wu.
After a string of increasingly high octane action thrillers, Hong Kong's Dante Lam confounded and impressed critics and audiences alike last year with his heartfelt, character-driven MMA drama, Unbeatable. The film proved the biggest domestic hit of the year and won awards both at home and overseas, which many saw as the dawning of a new, more mature and substantial chapter in the director's ever-evolving career.
That Demon Within clearly has its sights set on combining the signature thrills and bombastic set pieces from Lam's best work, like The Beast Stalker and Fire of Conscience, while pinning the drama on an emotionally unstable police officer, for which he has enlisted the talents of Daniel Wu, opposite regular collaborator Nick Cheung and a stable of familiar supporting players.
Constable Dave Wong (Wu) has always been a sensitive soul, and joined the police force to bring some much needed security and stability to his life. Currently stationed within a busy West Kowloon hospital, Wong comes face to face with a notorious and extremely violent criminal known as Hon the Demon King (Nick Cheung), who staggers into the A&E ward following a particularly bloody stand-off with the cops after Hon's gang lifted a stash of diamonds. Unaware of Hon's identity, Wong volunteers to give him a blood transfusion, a selfless act that saves the man's life, only for Hon to promptly escape from hospital, killing cops and innocent bystanders in the process.
Wong is reprimanded by his superiors, who were more than happy to let Hon die, and he is reassigned to track the killer down. Wong becomes increasingly convinced that Hon is a man from his own past, and his growing guilt morphs into a dangerous obsession as he scours the city for him. Meanwhile, Hon has problems of his own, caught redhanded attempting to rip off his own gang. This sudden distrust inevitably turns the crooks against each other, and soon the body count begins to rise on both sides of the case, and the real question becomes whether or not Wong will be able to track down his man in time?
From the gratuitous violence of the film's opening gunfight, Lam makes it clear that That Demon Within will be treading some dark waters. Cops have limbs blown off, duplicitous crooks unload shotguns in each other's faces at point blank range, all the while dressed in wonderfully colourful, yet fearsome demon masks. These disguises are apparently so malevolent and unlucky, only one place in all of Hong Kong was even prepared to make them for Hon and his men.
While the action proceeds from this daylight shootout through various parts of the city, Lam never shows us the upmarket parts of Hong Kong, where the affluent work and live and the skyscrapers glisten in the sunlight. His characters skulk around the dilapidated housing estates of Kowloon City and Sai Ying Pun, where damp creeps across the walls and ceilings as dank water drips from rusty pipes. Lam has created a veritable Hell on Earth, populated almost entirely by amoral criminals, frail pensioners and emotionally unstable cops.
This squalid vision of Hong Kong is effectively captured by Kenny Tse's moody cinematography, that paints everything in mouldy tones of yellow and brown. The unsettling mood is only accentuated by Leon Ko's eerily off-kilter score, which foregoes any kind of theme or melody for screeching and groaning solos across a variety of archaic and traditional instruments. The result flings us into a netherworld of condemnation from which no one is likely to escape unscathed.
The sole voice of reason comes from Wong's former classmate and now senior officer, Liz (Christie Chen), who remembers him as a troubled introverted young man, and is quick to realise all is not well. She spends most of the film's second half in hot pursuit of the increasingly unstable Wong, police psychologist in tow for good measure, yet by that stage Wong is too busy provoking Hon's gang into a series of increasingly entertaining betrayals.
Nick Cheung has proved countless times that he can play the wild-eyed psycho in his sleep, but here his opportunities to let loose are kept to a minimum, as Hon is largely sidelined by the increasingly disruptive antics of his nemesis and ultimately proves little more than a catalyst for Wong's own descent into psychosis.
The rest of Hon's gang provide some much needed levity to such bleak, Jacobean material. Branded with such delightful nicknames as Broker, Effigy, Emcee and Rookie, Liu Kai Chi in particular excels as the scheming, almost camp, second-in-command, who witnesses his crew of jobbing cons quickly turn on each other when the heat is turned high. Conversely, on the side of law and order, Dominic Lam's Inspector Mok gets to throw his wait around a little, while Andy On is criminally underused as his double-crossing subordinate, to the point that his role only seems to have been included so Lam can blow up a gas station in the film's finale.
Were the film consistently over-the-top throughout, rather than just in its opening and closing reels, That Demon Within could be justifiably hailed as a guilty pleasure of ridiculous excess, but it slumps to a monotonous crawl for long periods in the second act that all but kills it. Lam's usually frenetic pacing becomes a laborious plod, while the fall of Wong's character from buttoned-down boy-in-blue to off-his-rocker loon unfolds in preposterous yet somewhat predictable fashion. Not even the talents of Daniel Wu - who does his damnedest with what he's given - can make us care for this central character, or be energised by his plight, and whatever tension and energy the film opened with soon combusts in a ball of CGI flame.