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City on Fire - Movie Poster
Original Title:
Lung foo fong wan

Hong Kong 1987

Crime, Thriller

Ringo Lam

Chow Yun-Fat
Danny Lee
Sun Yueh
Carrie Ng
Roy Cheung
Ho Ka-Kui
Tsui Kam-Kong
Lau Kong

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City on Fire

City on Fire - Film Screenshot 1

Story: Ko Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) is an undercover cop and because of his work he frequently has trouble with his girlfriend (Carrie Ng). He may promise her to marry her, but the case he is currently working on doesn't even give him the time to appear at the appointment for his wedding registration. His girlfriend threatens to go abroad with another man, but Ko Chow doesn't just have to get his private life straight but also has to arrest a group of jewel thieves who act extremely brutally. In order to win over their trust he sells them weapons. But the police is already hot on Ko Chow's trails and wants to arrest him during the weapon deal. The only man who knows that Ko Chow is an undercover cop is Inspector Lau (Sun Yeuh), but he isn't at the top of the jewel thieves case anymore. Lau's current superior is a real pain in the neck. Thus, Ko Chow needs to evade the police, keep his girlfriend happy and deepen his friendship with Lee Fu (Danny Lee) so that he may become part of the gangster gang. Latter one he manages all too well so that he soon needs to ask himself where his loyalties lie...

Filmroll City on Fire - Film Screenshot 2 City on Fire - Film Screenshot 3

Review: Since I have been around for a few years already you might forgive me for not boarding the fan train and give "City on Fire" a rave review. Ringo Lam's flick is by no means a bad movie. No, it actually deserves to be seen by Hong Kong movie buffs. But it certainly isn't the director's best work or even a masterpiece. "Prison on Fire" or "Full Alert" are without a doubt better movies by Lam. So why are there so many viewers impressed by this movie? Well, it is one of the first HK flicks that deals with the theme of undercover cops and the psychological hardships that result from having to betray your friends. Therefore, "City on Fire" paved the way for many flicks with the same theme that came after it, including "Infernal Affairs". For this we have to be thankful to Ringo Lam.

City on Fire - Film Screenshot 5

Furthermore, there is another small filmmaker who was so impressed by "City on Fire" that his debut work, which was his big breakthrough, took many pages out of the book of this HK flick: Quentin Tarantino. I won't won't let myself be drawn into any discussion about which movie is the better one or if "Reservoir Dogs" is actually just a remake of this HK flick. Tarantino rehashed some scenes (most prominently the Mexican standoff) and also worked in other elements seen here into his own movie. Apart from that both works tread on totally different paths, though. "City on Fire", for example has mediocre to bad dialogue and is everything but polished in terms of style. Latter manages to give this action flick that certain something, however. Everything looks dark and gritty and consequently also a bit more realistic.

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However, the movie really gets gritty only towards the end. Up until then there are constantly humorous scenes to be seen as well. It's just that they work on the level of what a 14 year old boy hitting puberty would consider funny. Along with the saxophone-heavy soundtrack this doesn't really give the impression of watching a high quality production. This also concerns Chow Yun-Fat ("Hard Boiled", "Confucius"), who is simply goofing around too much and thus is also overacting on several occasions. His relationship with his fiancée, played by Carrie Ng ("Hungry Ghost Ritual"), is a bad joke since she is incredibly materialistic and because the subplot, as not to be expected otherwise, runs into sand later on. Nonetheless, Chow Yun-Fat of course manages to give his character that special charisma which makes him stand in the spotlight at all times.

City on Fire - Film Screenshot 7

Eventually, Lee Fu enters the stage and between him and Ko Chow a friendship unfolds. Fun fact, Danny Lee and Chow Yun-Fat should later on face each other in switched roles in John Woo's "The Killer". In the relationship between gangster and undercover cop there are some interesting human aspects coming to light since Ko Chow is working undercover for so long already that his living environment and his friends are in fact that of a gangster. So where do his loyalties lie? Familiar questions, but as already stated "City on Fire" was one of the first films that centered around them to this extent and that's also what makes the movie worth seeing. In this respect, the showdown has some nice thrilling moments in store for you, too. Apart from that there really is nothing to criticize Ringo Lam for when it comes to the level of suspense. The story itself isn't extraordinarily inventive, but there is always something going on.

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Still, you shouldn't expect any great shootouts. Even though there are every now and then a few bullets exchanged on an open street and despite some scenes being ruthtless and brutal the film consists of only few true action scenes. But the kinetic energy that they ooze out, which also includes one of the chasing scenes, is the result of a realistic tone that runs through the whole movie. The showdown on the other hand turns out to be rather poor action-wise and shows that on the one hand Ringo Lam didn't have that much of a big budget and on the other that "City on Fire" isn't a pure action movie. But to be considered a drama the characters aren't elaborated well enough, the relationship between Ko Chow and Lee Fu develops too clumsily and the dialogue can't do justice to the inner struggle of the undercover cop. Despite all that "City on Fire" is a must-see for Hong Kong fans.

(Author: Manfred Selzer)
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