A fitting finale for the career of Hong Kong action genre doyen Benny Chan…
It’s no surprise that what would sadly be much-loved action filmmaker Benny Chan’s final film arrived with such crushing expectations. Diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer during production, Chan completed directing duties but died before post-production began.
A big-budget action film starring Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse, along with Qin Lan (City of Life and Death, The Last Supper), Ray Lui (Dynasty Warriors, Death Notice), Patrick Tam (Port of Call, The Fatal Raid) and Tony Wu Tsz-Tung (Men on the Dragon, I Still Remember), rarely has a film had to live up to such promise, signalling his return to action after the creative misstep (to put it lightly) of Meow. Thankfully the finished product delivers on the action, even if we take a while to get there.
Much screen time is given to building Yen’s character inspector Cheung Sung-bong as a righteous hard-nosed cop, in what seems like a prolonged checklist of clichés. Haunted by nightmares about an event in the past, tick. Bright future ahead with wife (Qin Lan) expecting their first baby, tick. Side-lined by even his own team for being just too earnest, tick. But those past events come back to bite when a squad of former colleagues turned bad led by Ngo (Nicholas Tse) interrupt a police takedown of a crystal meth dealer and run off with the proceeds. The ensuing violent gunfire and explosions leaving dozens of officers dead or injured in their wake.
The race is on to find the culprits, following the drug trail to a shantytown, where Bong finds himself, initially at least, singlehandedly holding back a horde of gangster flunkies in a style that feels like a nod to Assault On Precinct 13. It soon becomes a cat and mouse game, but one where the mice want to be caught and have easily as much firepower, not to mention high explosives.
The action is particularly well handled by a stunt team that includes Yen’s regular collaborator Kenji Tanigaki (Enter The Fat Dragon) and Ku Huen-Chiu (Shadow, The Mermaid). The gunfire and knifework are violent, the car stunts thrilling, the martial arts have more emphasis on grounded, ruthless combat than showy moves. Here not a moment is wasted, with tight editing propelling the action along, and without losing the audience. The budget shows, with big sets including a shopping mall, and even a full-scale recreation of Hong Kong’s infamous Nathan Road.
Throughout it feels like Chan is not only recognising his own previous work but that of other Hong Kong directors. Sure, there are familiar aspects from his films: the gang in quirky masks, the bank heists, the post-Heat styled shootouts in the central business district. There’s a touch of SPL here when Yen extends his police rod, perhaps a bit of Tide And Tide there in the mall. When Bong’s wife is threatened in a bomber scenario, it recalls Herman Yau’s Shock Wave series (that is if Andy Lau’s demolition expert was replaced by The Muppets’ Beaker).
But perhaps the biggest reference is to John Woo. There’s plenty of two-handed gun sequences, a scene threatens to go full Hard Boiled, then later a gunman holds a small child. To top it all off, the finale sees us in a Catholic church under reconstruction in a setting that could only be more like The Killer if it had a few doves and pigeons flying around. It’s almost as if Chan was aiming to make this the ultimate Hong Kong action film, the unintended irony being it could be among the last.
All of which should be a lot of fun. The film is nicely captured by cinematographer Edmond Fung Yuen Man, whose previous work spans various films from the small-scale grimness of Soi Cheang (Dog Bite Dog, Shamo) to the grandiose opus of Dante Lam (Operation Mekong, Operation Red Sea), as well as, um, Chan’s previous Meow. French composer Nicolas Errèra’s solid score underpins the action and avoid the melancholy that can so often be overbearing, having worked with Chan previously on films like Shaolin and The White Storm.
It’s just the pacing of Raging Fire jeopardises it all at every turn. Having pained to show us just how upstanding a police officer Bong is, we then get extended flashbacks to the past, even a prolonged courtroom scene. Donnie Yen’s performance is fine, if hardly an unusual role for him. If Chan and Yen’s work on the mid 90s TV version of Fist Of Fury had a positive impact on both their careers, it would be Yen’s ongoing collaborations with Wilson Yip from the mid-2000s that finally would take him over the top. The second of those was the last to see him share the screen with Nicholas Tse, Dragon Tiger Gate. The decade that would follow largely saw Yen playing other overly serious cops and, of course, Ip Man.
Tse, in the meantime, makes a welcome return to the big screen, having spent much of that same period as a celebrity TV chef and travelogue presenter. Director Chan does regular collaborator Nicholas Tse by giving him the most fun character to play and one with a very individual personal fitness regime, even if that villain is undeniably one dimensional. The utter lack of depth and development is completely opposite to that spent on Bong’s character. Hardly the ambitious rascal that just needed some pointing in the right direction as per Shaolin.
You could read a lot into both characterisations, that perhaps this was a deliberate decision to circumnavigate any problems getting this film to a Mainland audience. As Yen’s character complains about there being ‘grey areas’ in police work, it seems to cast him solidly as black and white, even when – from a glancing perspective – his methods seem nearly as questionable. And while we get to see unconvincing flashbacks of Bong and Ngo playing ping pong, the fine supporting cast, including Patrick Tam, Tony Wu and a brief cameo from Simon Yam, hardly get a look in. Where’s the Chan who could so efficiently get over a character in a few lines? The whole production, as has often been the case for Hong Kong directors working in the Mainland production space, is unerringly po-faced. You yearn for the glee of moments like the first confrontation between Lau Ching-wan and Yu Rongguang in Big Bullet, where so much is told in a fleeting lift scene, wonderfully setting up the film. Where Yen and Tse’s scenes together should frizzle with nervous energy, like a dark flipside to The Killer, there’s little to enjoy here. (And not for Tse’s efforts trying.) This just takes itself too seriously.
It’s a shame, as the fantastic action sequences deserve to be seen on the big screen, and stand with the best of Chan’s work. But a shorter running time would easily help you look past these flaws.