Definitely among the late Ringo Lam’s best films, “City on Fire” is one of the most iconic Hong Kong films of all time, although its international fame came after Tarantino used several elements (including the Mexican standoff) in “Reservoir Dogs”. Furthermore, the film was one of the titles that propelled Chow Yun Fat’s career towards stardom while it netted him the Best Actor and Lam the Best Director prizes at the 1988 Hong Kong Film Awards.
After one of his undercover cops is brutally stabbed to death, Inspector Lau orders his other “mole”, Ko Chow, to continue the deceased’s investigation into a jewelry robbing gang. Ko Chow is reluctant, since him being undercover has led to a number of issues, both in his line of work, and in his personal life, where his girlfriend, Hung, is fed up with him being always away on missions. After a rather violent robbery that ends up with multiple victims including policemen, and the gang members getting away, the police commissioner sets up a special task force under the leadership of young inspector John Chan. Lau and Chan become rivals instantly, and the tension that ensues brings Ko Chow under even more pressure. In his despair, he forms a very strong bond with one of the members of the gang, Fu.
Ringo Lam wastes no time in the film, with the initial, quite violent stabbing, setting the tone for a genuine crime thriller from the beginning. Ko Chow relationship with Hung is the main source of comedy (and later drama) in the narrative, but the basic premises remain those of the crime movie. In that fashion, Lam directs a rather tense movie, with the agony permeating the narrative, frequently reaching a number of apogees as Ko Chow lingers between being discovered by the members of the gang and being caught by Chan’s men, who does not seem to care about him and his work at all. The feud between the two police officials provides a secondary point of focus, which eventually also adds to the agony deriving from the rising pressure Ko Chow feels. Through this approach, Lam justifies the bonds he forms with one of the men he is supposed to arrest, in an element that moves towards the concept of male friendship as the ultimate value in the world.
Buy This Title
Apart from the narrative, the film also thrives in its action scenes, with the combination of Andrew Lau Wai Keung’s cinematography and Ming Lam Wong’s editing resulting in a number of intricate and quite violent sequences. The fact that in HK action films, the police really get their share of “punishment” (in contrast to Hollywood productions of the category where the bad guys usually just try to escape) also adds to the quality of both action and narrative, adding realism and drama to the story. The two scenes of the robberies and the whole final sequence are the highlights of both Lam’s directorial approach and of the production values, with the Mexican standoff and Inspector Lau’s last reaction being the most rewarding scenes in an overall impressive film.
Chow Yun Fat is exceptional in a role that has him portraying his trademark combination of coolness and goofiness, but also a man whose angst is killing him inside but has to appear calm on the outside. Fat portrays this inner struggle in impressive fashion, in one of the best roles of his career. Danny Lee’s part as Fu is more straightforward; however, the way he “warms” to Ko Chow is also excellent and he is also quite good in the dramatic aspects of his character towards the ending. Yueh Sun is also very good as Inspector Lau, particularly in his frustrated moments, while Roy Cheung as Inspector Chan portrays his despicability with gusto. The excellently depicted rivalry of the two provides one of the best assets of the narrative and highlights their chemistry.
“City on Fire” is one of the greatest HK crime thrillers of all time, and a must-watch for every fan of the genre.