City on Fire: ”Those who should die don’t, those who shouldn’t, die early”

Year:1987
Directed by Ringo Lam
Produced by
Written by
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Danny Lee, Sau-Yin, Sun Yueh, Roy Cheung, Elvis Tsui, Lau Kong, Fong Yau, Chan Chi-Fai, Cheng Mang-Ha, Parkman Wong, Chow Bo-Saan, and Victor Hon Kwan

An undercover cop, Ko Chow has the uncertain task of infiltrating a gang of deadly jewelry thieves.

City on Fire is more than an inspiration for the Quentin Tarantino’s classic Reservoir Dogs which appears to be pretty much its reputation in the West. City on Fire is Ringo Lam’s gritty classic made in the heyday of John Woo. Ringo Lam is pretty much the complete opposite of John Woo. While John Woo is famed for his high flying gun-play and over the top heroism, Ringo Lam is more concerned about fighting injustice on a down to earth level and hyper realistic to the extent that he denies the high flying gun-play of John Woo.

City on Fire is the pursuit of justice in a grim world. Ko Chow’s life is at an awkward deadlock as his professional life and personal life failed to understand him and even work against him. Ko Chow is constantly caught in a series of bad catch 22s that he can’t escape from. Ko Chow’s profession as an undercover cop has him feigning loyalty to earn
the trust of criminals to entrap them later on. Of course, Ko Chow does it for the sake of justice, nonetheless, it sparks a moral dilemma in him.

City on Fire captures Ko Chow’s story in a cinematic glory that looks unflatteringly real. The back alleys, streets and the nightlife of Hong Kong comes alive due to Lam’s tight camerawork.

The script feels tight as well. The dialogue cleverly foreshadow the fates of characters and stresses the thematic purpose of the narrative concisely. There is even a scene where Ko Chow has literally one foot in the grave and also it is a graveyard where Ko Chow makes his deal with the thieves. So, Ko Chow is, in a way, a dead man walking. It is cleverly handled foreshadowing that would go over the heads of most viewers that I only noticed on my second viewing. City on Fire is lean and paced so wonderfully not a single scene feels put to waste. Apart from that goofy dancing scene.

City on Fire doesn’t descend into over exaggerated and sensational shooting galleries. It persists with its gritty and down to earth tone from start to finish. Ringo Lam doesn’t glamorize the life of a police officer through over the top heroics. Though, not to say foolishly he demonizes them either. It is clear that the police are a force for good, however, many of the police are far from likable. More than often, police officers are killed in the same unglamorous manner as the thugs they hunt.

The greatest strength of City on Fire is it takes Ko Chow’s internal conflict then externalizes it in such a believable way. The gangsters although quite crude still exhibit a strong comradery amongst each other. It’s a fragile bond that can snap at any second. Yet, the life of crime doesn’t completely snuff out a criminal’s humanity. After Ko Chow sees a kindred spirit in Fu, the moral dilemma of choosing between loyalty and justice takes hold of Ko Chow. This character driven dilemma is what moves nearly every part of the drama. There is no any awkward subplot unrelated to Ko Chow’s predicament that distracts us. Ko Chow’s duty as undercover-cop puts his relationship with his nagging girlfriend on a perilous path. Loyalty to his romantic life and to his blood brother endlessly haunt and confuse him. Yet, it was loyalty to his mentor figure, in the first place that got him in this entanglement. As it is in real life, there is no easy solution. Ko Chow must live vicariously with the mistakes he makes.

There is little tangible glory even for the duty-bound Ko Chow. Ko Chow as an undercover cop is already accustomed a world of moral ambiguity. The clear cut distinction between the police and the criminal world is a thing of the past for him. Ko Chow is the odd maverick who exists across an odd spectrum. He is simultaneously within the law and outside of it. His actions are committed to putting criminals behind bars but his heart strangely sympathizes with the very men he seeks to entrap and arrest. Fu and Ko Chow’s friendship illustrates this paradox.

Ringo Lam developed a great classic of a neo-noir set in the concrete jungle that is Hong Kong about the daunting dilemmas that an undercover cop must face in the line of duty. And, contains storytelling that is amazingly precise and poignant.

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