Korean director Kim Jae-hoon kicks off his film making career with his grim yet shaky debut Devils (악마들). This is a twisted action-thriller that delves into the ideas of moral ambiguity and the lengths we will take to stop evil. Drawing inspiration from action classics of the '90s like Face/Off, this film gives the genre a modern makeover, tailored for a new generation of cinema-goers. With a subtle nod and a clear influence from the Korean classic I Saw the Devil, Devils offers a lively, albeit slightly watered down, version of its thrilling predecessors.
Homicide detective Jae-hwan (Oh Dae-hwan) has a relentless drive for vengeance against Jin-hyuk (Jang Dong-yoon), a dangerous serial killer responsible for numerous heinous murders, which he posts onto the dark web. Clouded by his rage, Jae-hwan goes to extreme measures to track down and stop his nemesis. In a frenzied pursuit, they finally clash, leading to an incident where he and Jin-hyuk wake up and realize they have swapped minds. Trapped in each other's bodies, they now share an eerie connection. With his family at stake, Jae-hwan must find a way to reclaim his own body and capture his adversary once and for all.
Devils is a film that plays pretty fast and loose with narrative logic, which can be somewhat forgiven because its true strength lies in its action-packed sequences. As the mystery behind the mind swap unravels, the film did have me guessing and partially subverted my expectations with some twists and turns, albeit some seemingly outlandish. However, this was often masked by the overall thrill of the chase and it was nice to have a film that was willing to indulge in the absurd for the sake of something a little more active.
For any mind swap movie to succeed, the performances of the actors embodying the switched characters are vital. Oh Dae-hwan and Jang Dong-yoon deliver serviceable portrayals, managing the delicate balance between various personalities. Though a deeper exploration of the characters before the swap could have amplified the impact, the two leads capably navigate the demanding roles.
Devils surprisingly takes a dark grisly approach to its narrative, delving into themes of serial murder, brutal torture, and the dark underbelly of snuff film distribution. Despite the intensity, moments of silliness occasionally dilute the darkness. The film’s opening scene finds a group of men dismembering a naked young woman, all decked out in neon fluorescent paint straight out of Joel Schumaker's '95 Batman Forever, while blasting spooky hip-hop trap beats. This kind of over the top stylization just didn't sit well with the gruesome actions taking place and in moments like these I couldn’t help but wonder if the film itself was having a bit of an identity crisis.
While Devils is willing to swing its pendulum into some grisly visuals, it fails to commit, undermining its overall potential impact. The polished aesthetics, lighting, and Jang Dong-yoon's "pretty boy" look adds a sheen that feels out of place. Despite some exhilarating action scenes and manic acting styles, the film's appeal ends up falling a little short, missing the mark it aims to hit.
In the end, Devils struggles to pick a consistent lane, resulting in a fun yet lackluster result. It may have hints of nostalgia and plenty of moments of excitement, but it feels like a rough draft searching for the right melody. As a debut for director Kim Jae-hoon, Devils feels like a love letter to several other films, and hopefully next time, he can find a bit more of his own voice.