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Theme Tuesday - Ringo Lam - City on Fire (1987)

For February 2019, I will be exploring the works of Hong Kong action director and master Ringo Lam, who passed away last year.


City on Fire is perhaps best known in the West for supposedly inspiring Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. On the surface, the resemblance is there. A police officer infiltrates a gang of thieves to foil their heist of a jewelry store. The heist goes terribly awry, and the gang members start suspecting each other. However, Reservoir Dogs is basically the last fifteen minutes of this movie stretched out to feature length. Tarantino’s movies are always about character first and most of the “action” happens before anyone pulls a gun on anyone.

Ringo Lam is very much an action director, and a great one at that. The thing is, he didn’t see himself as primarily an action director, which is why this movie takes a while to get going. While I appreciate that he took time to establish Chow Yun-fat’s character Chow and give him a good reason why he would be hesitant to go undercover (a previous undercover attempt went badly), I don’t think drama is Lam’s strong suit so far. There is a bit too much cheesy dialogue, and it kind of plods along at an ungainly pace. At best, I would say his exposition is serviceable.

The action, on the other hand, is so goddamn good. The last fifteen minutes of this movie are a perfect melding of cinematography and sound. It would have been tricky for this scene to take place on the extremely busy streets of Hong Kong and muddled the action, but it lends to the freneticism of the whole heist and how it was doomed from the start. Again, while I didn’t necessarily appreciate the exposition as it was happening, it did pay off in the end, with all the characters and their clearly defined motives. The action is also much less stylized and gritty, though even Lam can’t resist some auteur flourishes, such as the chase set to a Christmas carol and the light pouring through the bullet holes in the thieves’ hideout. I will be interested to see if Lam’s later movies will tighten up the saggy parts of his exposition and play to his strengths better.

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