An irascible thug and a dweeby doormat make socko debt collectors in “Devil and Angel,” a mainland Chinese comedy that leans heavily on the chemistry and star wattage of husband-and-wife leads Deng Chao and Betty Sun Li. Although it treats viewers as if they’re kids with ADD, this sophomore feature by actor-turned-helmer Deng and playwright Yu Baimei is more competently directed and scripted than their trashy big-screen debut, “The Breakup Guru,” and possesses a sliver of heart beneath all the brash slapstick and tacky gags. After a roaring weekend opening, the pic has ascended to B.O. heaven, having grossed about $97 million in 13 days.
Deng and Yu are taking aim at the same crowd who flocked to see their 2014 debut with a similar opposites-attract concept: Here, Deng’s roughneck protag is less of a scoundrel than his professional Lothario in “The Breakup Guru,” while Sun, who’s hugely popular in her roles as Machiavellian imperial concubines in the TV series “The Legend of Zhen Huan” and “The Legend of Mi Yue,” plays against type here as a nerd who can “only walk in a straight line.” Rather than cooking up an icky romance, the film develops the sort of offbeat odd-couple relationship that recalls “Rain Man.” However, the movie is pitched at the same comic key as “Guru,” and the same gags are recycled with only slight variations; certain lines are repeated long after they stop being funny.
After setting the prologue of “Guru” in sun-soaked Mauritius, Deng and Yu go to the other extreme by opening their second feature on snowy Mt. Makalu in the Himalayas. Half-Russian hoodlum Ivanov (Xu Kejia) and his three fellow henchmen are hounded by debt collector Mo Feili (Deng), who turns up in nothing but briefs and icicles of snot dangling from his nose. More dogged than a husky, Mo will make them pay, even if he has to bring down an avalanche to do it.
Mo’s pugnacious temperament means that even a meet-cute would be bruising. Having dosed off while driving, he hits Xiaodao (Sun), but instead of checking if she’s OK, he howls at her for “insurance scamming.” Intimidated, she apologizes profusely even as blood gushes from her head. Finally fed up with being walked all over by everyone, Xiaodao seeks advice from spiritual doctor Zhe Ergen (Liang Chao, who also played a self-help pundit in “Guru”), who postulates that just as “ying” coexists with “yang,” she must find harmony from her polar opposite — cue her nemesis, Mo.
What they don’t realize is that Zhe plans to kill two birds with one stone. As Mo’s partner in debt collection, he wants to increase his efficiency by exploiting Xiaodao’s computation skills as a bookkeeper and make up for the ruffian’s illiteracy and short fuse; at the same time, he gets paid for their “treatment.” Sure enough, their combination of brains and brawn lends itself to several zany scenarios, as when Mo helps Xiaodao get in touch with her inner warrior by making her sprint through Chinese traffic, or the way she gets them out of sticky situations using convoluted math formulas.
Unlike “The Breakup Guru,” which ricocheted from one farcical setpiece to another, Yu’s script builds comical situations around one simple storyline: Mo’s determination to get unscrupulous businessman Hua (Wang Yanhui) to cough up the $464,000 he owes his redundant workers in back payment. In similar fashion, characters don’t just pop up randomly, but instead are part of a chain reaction that moves the otherwise scrappy narrative along. For instance, it was Hua who fired Xiaodao for digging up dirt in his company accounts; it’s Hua again who hired Ivanov to go after Mo. Even Zhe helps thicken the plot with his devious double-crosses.
The leads’ chemistry is obvious, even when they’re at each other’s throats. The initial cynical humor directed at Xiaodao’s klutzy, by-the-book nature gives way to sympathy for her strenuous efforts to be honest and hard-working in a world ruled by crooks. Her eventual reconciliation with a difficult mother will strike a chord with younger Chinese auds. Likewise, Mo’s anger issues are traced to a deep unease about the relentless pace of social change, epitomized by his nostalgia for sights and sounds associated with his childhood.
A serious actor capable of studied intensity and nuanced emotions, especially when working with arthouse helmer Cao Baoping (“The Equation of Love and Death,” “The Dead End”), Deng discards all that for an aggressively physical performance consisting of non-stop growls, glares and galumphs. It’s exhausting to watch, though it seems to be going down swimmingly with mainland audiences. Sporting girlish bangs, nerdy specs and bunny teeth, Sun makes a confident stab at comedy with a sweetly gormless expression and limber slapstick timing. Supporting characters, including Mo’s secondary love interest Sisi (Yu’s wife, Dai Lele) and Hua’s goons, are all prone to excessive mugging.
The whimsical production design by Hao Yi (whose versatile credits include “Mojin: The Lost Legend,” “No Man’s Land” and “City of Life and Death”) lifts the story from its humdrum urban setting into realms of quirky theatricality, echoing Yu’s legit roots. Most distinctive is the labyrinthine bunker where Mo lives with other misfits. Decorated with touches of steampunk and adorned with Mao-era paraphernalia, the set evokes a raggedy demimonde that embodies Mo’s social defiance.
Elsewhere, a rumble in an arcade heightens the film’s hyperactive, cartoonish tone, while the closed-down amusement park that formerly employed Hua’s laid-off staff provides a gritty backdrop of economic ruin for a goofy hide-and-seek sequence. Other craft contributions, such as Max Wang’s garishly colored lensing and frisky editing by Angie Lam and Li Jiahua, stoke the film’s over-the-top attitude.