Benny Chan’s final film defies expectations with his most hard-edged, hard-hitting action…
Aside from how he would frequently revisit his own material to further develop it, Benny Chan had an undeniably important but often overlooked impact in developing the careers of several of Hong Kong’s biggest and/or most acclaimed stars. He played the greatest single role in making Andy Lau a superstar, helped keep Jackie Chan’s hits steadily going through decades, helped the whole industry with big box office successes during the turn-of-the-century slump, and gave some of the first roles/breakthrough roles to Daniel Wu and Nicholas Tse. But most easily going unnoticed among foreigners was Chan’s role in Donnie Yen’s rise as one of the industry’s biggest stars.
Even while having a few early cult favourites, then creating buzz with a supporting role against Jet Li in 1992’s Once Upon a Time in China II and as lead in 1993’s mildly successful Iron Monkey, Yen would be given by far his widest exposure up to then from the largely Chan-directed 1995 TV series Fist of Fury, fleshing out the Chen Zhen role made famous by Bruce Lee (which he’d play again in a 2010 movie). The role was popular enough that Yen is still referred to by many Chinese and other Asian audiences as Chen Zhen. That image of Yen would only be eclipsed well over a decade later by the popularity of the Ip Man series. But Yen would never get to make a film with Chan until what turned out to be the final opportunity.
After some brief quality time with his wife Ying (Qin Lan, City of Life and Death), hardline Inspector Cheung Sung-Bong (Donnie Yen) reports to headquarters to news from his exhausted superior of yet another complaint against him. But the brass know he gets the job done, and he heads a formidable, quite loyal 5-member squad. However, Bong’s most talented protégé and friend who looked up to him, Ngo (Nicolas Tse), fell out of and fell out with the force in a major way. When police start to close in on a Vietnamese gangster as part of long-pursued, wider dragnet for notorious drug distributor Wong Kwun (24 Herbs rapper Brian Siswojo), they find themselves beaten to the punch. A group of terrifyingly efficient masked vigilantes have not only annihilated the gang, but proceed to attempt the same towards the police as well, leaving Bong’s mentor dead amid many more casualties.
The plot only thickens for Bong. He later finds Ngo again as a deeply bitter, indignant man who may well have a connection to the crime sprees, drug trails and/or body trails. And the deeper Bong gets into his investigation on Wong, it not only gets him into more dangerous situations with gangs and thugs all over HK, but increasingly into confrontations with his own force and even his own past.
One might say Raging Fire is something of a small “family” reunion among Chan production alumni and actors with other connections to each other. Aside from Yen and a special appearance from Simon Yam, Kenny Wong — who started as just another police extra on Chan’s first movie of the genre, What a Hero! then had a few more minor police roles in others — moved up to his most significant one (“Jaws”) here. But this makes Nicholas Tse the most frequent major collaborator of Chan’s career, having done Gen-X Cops, New Police Story, Rob-B-Hood, Invisible Target, Shaolin and Raging Fire.
This grouping isn’t about nostalgia, however. Tse cited Yen as his idol just as his character does for Yen’s, and they indeed have similar backgrounds (with Yen at the forefront and Tse trying to catch up) including extensive skill in Wing Chun and experience in doing their own stunts; it all lends an extra resonance to their rivalry here. Yen and Tse were previously paired under more friendly, frivolously fantastical circumstances in 2006’s Dragon Tiger Gate, but this is a completely different level.
Against the steady trends of HK action cinema, it’s more noticeable than ever how unwaveringly Chan was determined to give his audiences a show. Nearly all of his later films and several earlier ones were 2 hours long or well over that. This time is no exception, but the execution feels different nonetheless. Very much about visual storytelling but also driven by impassioned dialogue, Raging Fire moves with all the red-hot energy of its namesake.
How quickly the film defines Yen’s life and character is indicative not of a weak narrative or an overly hurried pace, but a film that just really wants to get to it, making an ultimately convincing argument that 126 minutes still leaves little time to waste with so much action, so many ideas and so many characters to develop. The technical team also fully invests in that push, with lightning-quick but clear editing intricately synchronised with pithy dialogue, music and cinematography. Visually, this is like no other from Chan, with high amounts of shadowy, monochrome and stylised photography aptly redolent of fire, lightning or places affected by them.
While no Chan police department is perfect (or by any means roundly bad either), Raging has the dirtiest cops and policing of any of his films (the only couple that come close to as bad are more due to incompetence than corruption or excess). After the kidnapping of a rich businessman, Bong’s department chief’s order (with an added implication that any means are justified) pretty much says it all: “[He] must be safe before the stock market opens tomorrow.” Bong himself resorts to head bashing on a desk to get information (is that supposed to jog a forgetful suspect’s memory?), and even the lady of the squad Turbo (Jeana Ho) isn’t above abusing non-compliant thugs.
For all of that (and the fact those are just the good guys), Raging trumps Man Wanted as the single darkest film of Chan’s career — speaking in terms of the tenebrous/vaguely dystopian aesthetics, solemnly cynical characters and degree of graphicness of the violence alike (though it’s still not as gratuitous as Man Wanted’s). The film does have a rather odd habit of showing quick closeups of bodies right after they’re dispatched as if we need confirmation, but it makes just as unusual of a point of showing confirmation of injured civilians surviving.
Though characteristically opening with a bang, this time Chan transcends the label of HK action cinema even while still adhering to the genre with full force. The fact this film had already begun production in April 2019 — with completion and release long delayed three times over by the mass protests, the director’s illness then the pandemic — makes it all the more extraordinary how highly topical it’s proven for world developments coming to the fore after that time. Whether thinking about HK, the US, the UK or a number of other places, the film’s core issues of police brutality, corruption and The Blue Wall of Silence have only grown more relevant up to now.
But Benny Chan being Benny Chan doesn’t beat the audience over the head with these issues; he uses them intelligently and just a little provocatively to deliver popular entertainment with a sharper message and stronger punch. One issue that’s left perhaps deliberately but not unreasonably dangling is the larger question of how much responsibility the system itself which Bong’s a part of (even if not playing direct parts in its greater excesses) had in creating the monsters they’re left to deal with.
Stylisations aside, Tse gets much credit for making his role frighteningly real — the kind of person for whom one wonders how on earth they were ever accepted to be police officers to begin with. It’s something of an inverse of his similarly hell-bent-on-vengeance cop from Invisible Target, but here he’s driven by a certain kind of entitlement, and an outlook on police as a brotherhood with codes scarcely removed from similar triad codes.
Yen’s character, despite simply being described and touted as “a righteous cop”, is made to be more layered and flawed in actuality. But between Ngo’s clique, a certain arrogant rival in the force impeding progress (confirming one last time that it’s a requirement for Chan police movies), and the police bureaucracy seeing the protection and strengthening of the institution itself as the most important issue (and carrying over that same hierarchal method towards enforcement of the law itself), Bong is pushed and pushes himself into trying to become a hero. If nothing else, Bong just hopes to avoid getting sucked into any other part of that system.
I’ve mentioned before how one of the most fascinating recurring themes explored in Chan’s films were the complicated relationships of mutual, vacillating respect and animosity between cop and crook (or occasionally cop and cop or crook and crook). But I didn’t know the half about that until seeing this film, where the unarmed, non-physical confrontation between Bong and Ngo is so brilliantly set up, tension-filled and darkly ironic that it’s every bit as engrossing as its best physical confrontation scenes.
Having filmed what I am quite sure were over a hundred gunfights and probably slightly less martial arts fights in his career, you’d think Chan might have gotten tired of them or maybe would’ve run out of new ideas to help stage, show and stylise them. But he clearly felt more inspired and excited about them than ever this time! In surprisingly fluid fashion, some of the flashiness of Gen-X Cops’ fighting scenes is balanced with the gritty urban realism of Big Bullet’s (whose Chinese title, by the way, ends with the same “Raging Fire” comprising this one); and the unrelentingly proficient physicality of Invisible Target is combined with the ante-upping brutality of Man Wanted.
Just as B. Chan squeezed out Jackie Chan’s final all-out action performance on New Police Story, he got a 57-year-old Donnie Yen to do what he can’t possibly be doing much longer for this film. Highlights include characters having a gunfight when they’re not even on the same floor (plus another through the window), and an electrifying car chase/kung fu/gun fight between combatants in moving vehicles that probably brings the term “gun fu” as close to being literal as it’s ever been.
Of course, this is still by no means a perfect film; but the numerous quibbles are indeed quibbles. A couple of flashback scenes slow things down a little, there are split-seconds of awkward or implausible CGI, and some of the character actions seem a little unnaturally written (particularly for one scene involving a call girl with an antagonist). Also, while this film has an interesting 5-member police crew in very similar fashion to Big Bullet (vs an anti-cop quintet much like New Police Story), this team and the heroes altogether are rather dominated (by screen time and action) by Yen’s character, which didn’t happen with Lau Ching Wan’s team player protagonist in Bullet. Though too much Yen still isn’t a bad thing in this case and there’s a decent bit of diverting shorter content built around supporting characters, this is still unmistakably Yen and Tse’s movie.
Admittedly, between hearing the unfortunate news about the director’s condition while making the film (falling ill in the middle of production but still coming back) then later seeing its initial rather crude trailer, my expectations for Chan’s last film were not very high at all. I was merely hoping for him to close out his filmography with a decent little footnote bookend (after all, there was no way to go but up from Meow anyway).
Silly me: This went beyond my expectations and even hopes as to how it would’ve turned out, as an action extravaganza that doubles as a character study and triples as an institutional law enforcement critique. Notably, Chan decided to go the exact route of legendary HK actress/singer Anita Mui when gravely ill from a different kind of cancer: he pushed on anyway, fully dedicating himself to his craft and leaving one last gift for his audience.
And a fitting gift it is. Raging Fire is a potent encapsulation of most of the main themes, tropes and styles established as Chan’s trademarks over three decades of crime movies — and a splendid way to close out the filmography of one of the last key directors to emerge out of Hong Kong’s Golden Age.
“The bastards [superiors]. They sure love to brag. They take all the credit; we take all the risks.”
Raging Fire screens as part of New York Asian Film Festival 2021, which runs from August 6 to 22, see their official website. It is released by Well Go USA in North America from August 13.
Read all the entries in our Benny Chan Cops & Robbers Rundown.
To perfectly cap one more Benny Chan tradition, he saved his best and most high-profile devastation of his beloved city for last, having the criminals, cops and criminal cops wreak a huge swathe of havoc across Hong Kong’s #1 tourist area in Tsim Sha Tsui to render it part demolition derby, part shooting range, and part inferno. Cars, bullets and explosions are thrown all around Canton Road’s luxury shopping, hotel and arts/historical building complex (which is also near Victoria Harbour and ferries for the Mainland and Macau). In addition to the ones fleeing with their Chanel bags in hand and whatnot, some of the poor bystanders appear to just be carrying their luggage. Welcome to Hong Kong!
In my review for literally just the last Hong Kong movie I watched, Drifting, I questioned the very questionable tendency for the industry’s most prolific South Asian actor, Singh Hartihan Bitto, to seemingly almost always be playing drug dealers. And no sooner than I moved on from that film did I find him — to my surprise as he wasn’t even listed on any credits — on this film…..playing a drug dealer! This case still doesn’t really go against the director’s general career avoidance of crude stereotyping however, since “Ali” (Bitto) and the Vietnamese gangsters still aren’t nearly as bad as almost every other gangster (and some cops, and some businessmen) in the movie.
Funny enough, even actual performance aside, you could say Tse was just the right person to choose for his role here, as back during his “bad boy” days he’s had firsthand experience with cooperative police corruption.
Since I’ve viewed and reviewed all Chan’s police movies in sequence, a final ranking is in order — or at least as much of one as can be done now:
While the rest are no problem, my favourite three are so close to each other that I’d have to watch them closer together to get a fully clear gauge, as they’re all very different kinds of excellent. Big Bullet is exemplary no-frills genre entertainment, White Storm is the opposite in being epic and impassioned, and Raging Fire falls in between them, having but also lacking the best of both worlds. In short, there’s no going wrong when Chan was at his best in the genre he remolded — and even when not he was always interesting.