Story: Lo Ka Yiu (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) ends up in prison because of manslaughter. The naive young man is completely lost there and his honest
and therefore also very direct personality doesn't let him win over any friends. Ching (Chow Yun-Fat), who is serving his time for a while already, also
doesn't know how to deal with him at first, but then he decides to take him under his wings. That's necessary, too, because Lo clashes with gang leader
Micky (Ho Ka-Kui). Ching tries to pour oil on troubled water, but the storm has already been raised. However, since there are rules in prison, Micky can't
just give Lo a pasting. Thus, he works together with feared prison guard "Scarface" Hung (Roy Cheung). While Micky is betraying the other gang leaders, he
makes it look like, with the helping hand of Hung, as if Lo had blown the whistle. Lo has to learn the hard way how life in prison works and he only
has Ching who may take care of him surviving his three-year sentence somehow. But even he isn't almighty and Hung proves to be a true despot.
Review: Prison movies didn't win any originality prices back in the nineties either and in fact the story of "Prison on Fire", revolving around
a prisoner who wouldn't be able to survive in his new environment for a week when on his own, but is taken care of by a more experienced inmate, is (has been)
anything but new. But what makes the film probably one of the best prison thrillers/dramas from Hong Kong nonetheless is the sheer energy with which the viewer
is taken on a worthwhile roller coaster ride. The world depicted is at times pretty dark, but never unbearable and this is most of all thanks to the incredibly
charismatic Chow Yun-Fat in the main lead, who shows some extreme versatility in his portrayal. Furthermore, the movie also convinces as a good drama.
Director Ringo Lam also showed in his later movies like "Full Alert" or in his contribution to the omnibus project
"Triangle" that he is a competent action-film director, despite his excursion to Hollywood with "Maximum Risk"
or "Replicant". Since the late nineties his works are a pretty rare sight, but in "Prison on Fire" he is without a doubt in his best creative period.
Sometimes the movie has some B-movie charm to it because of a few clumsy jump cuts or a synthesizer soundtrack, but didn't we learn to love this stuff
from Hong Kong cinema of the 80s/90s? This is even more so the case as there is attained a tremendous dynamic in the scenes, which is brought to bear
especially by the unrefined technical adaptation.
Yet, this doesn't imply that the film doesn't have a central theme. The events in fact develop in a pretty fluid fashion and has the friendship unfolding
between the two prison inmates at its core. Nevertheles, there is some sort of menace hovering above everything, mainly in the shape of Micky and the prison
guard Scarface. Additionally, this is also achieved by us being aware all too well how little qualms Hong Kong cinema had in the 90s to let the protagonists
die in the end just like that. But despite this baneful menace "Prison on Fire" oftentimes and to our surprise stands out with a rather positive tone. There
are no extreme disputes between the inmates - there is more smoke than fire when it comes to this - and the bullying by the prison guard is also rather moderate,
the prison warden is even a pretty likeable character.
Accordingly, the movie's biggest problem ist that the psychological strain the protagonists are suffering from aren't always fully comprehensible. Towards the end, initiated by a rather small matter, everything culminates in the extreme and that's where the drama turns out to be more convinceable than it maybe should be allowed to be, which is once more the achievement of Chow Yun-Fat ("God of Gamblers", "Confucius"). He is utmost charismatic, yet manages to give his role a dark painting as well, because even though he might be a likeable guy and gets along with almost everyone in prison with his laid-back attitude, there is an at times hot-tempered individual slumbering within him. The crime that put him behind bars wasn't a small one after all either.
Contrary to Chow, who sometimes runs the risk of overstepping the border to overacting, yet over and over manages to find the right balance, Tony
Leung Ka-Fai ("Tai Chi Zero", "Eye in the Sky") is rather reserved and even unspectacular
in his role, with a little exception, when he breaks down and for the first time puts up a fight against his bullies.
At the bottom line "Prison on Fire" works well as a drama particularly because of its showdown and is one of those entertaining thrillers that can score with their lead actor. But Ringo Lam as the director also proves that he can manage to make an actually unspectacular story work out with the necessary atmosphere and impact. For fans of good old Hong Kong cinema "Prison on Fire" is thus a must-see.