Film Review: Dante Lam’s “That Demon Within” (魔警)

As a director, Dante Lam has had a long career blending action, romance, crime, and comedy to tell masculine dramas. In his latest picture “That Demon Within” (魔警, 2014), Lam presents a horror-tinged noir film about an irredeemable bank robber and gang leader Hon Kong (played by Nick Cheung), and straight arrow cop Dave (Daniel Wu).    Their relationship is the crux of the film. Hon is a ruthless survivalist and though he escapes capture during the film’s first 10 minutes, fate’s cruel hand deals the crook a serious blow by almost killing him. Hon is at death’s door until he arrives at the hospital Dave is assigned to guard.  Without thinking, Dave saves Hon by giving him some of his blood, thus bonding the men through a literal blood pact.

Of course, Hon escapes the moment he can walk, and because Dave pulled Hon away from death’s door, all the subsequent destruction that Hon and his gang cause can be said to stem from Dave’s initial desire to be a “good cop.” Yet this is no ordinary cat and mouse game that Hon and Dave are playing.  Hon disappears from the narrative during the film’s second half, placing Dave’s search and psychological unraveling center stage.

Though Wu’s character may have quite a white bread name, Dave is a quintessential noir hero, scarred and driven by an obsession. Through the sporadic use of flashbacks, we learn that Dave had a father who imparted the boy with a strict moral code and a penchant for random hallucinations.  And Lam’s use of color in “That Demon Within” to visually express Dave’s emotional and psychological state is beautifully baroque. Oftentimes, while watching the film I was curious as to whether what I was seeing on screen might not be Dave’s own hallucinations since Lam masterfully places only one narrative bread crumb at a time for us to pick up.

As Dave’s hunt for Hon escalates and we gain more information about him, the line between the two men gets blurred. Through mirror imagery we come to understand that both men were destined to meet and do battle: heaven and hell, angel and demon, fire and water, in a never-ending struggle for the control of one man’s soul.

The world that Lam creates in “That Demon Within” is a bleak, oppressive one. Bad men are worse than we thought and good guys like Dave are tragic heroes. Don’t be fooled, though; being a Dante Lam picture, the film is busting at the seams with several fights, chases and explosions. You might not be certain whether to root for Dave or not, but you definitely won’t be bored watching this picture.