Probably best known for 2004’s New Police Story, director Benny Chan was taken sick on the set of Raging Fire, a Donnie Yen-starring cop drama. Subsequently diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, Chan worked through his illness to complete the film, before passing away in August of 2020 at the age of 58. The film is dedicated to his memory.
Yen plays Cheung Sung-bong, a dedicated senior inspector in a regional crime unit. An experienced officer, and an expectant father, Bong is part of a team that has been working for years to bring down a gang heavily involved in drug and weapon trafficking. When the time comes to perform the highly classified operation, the police and the gang are hijacked by a third team: a mysterious group of masked men who kill the gang and take off with the proceeds. With Bong’s boss being killed in the attempt to stop the group, he goes to work to uncover those responsible.
In time, he learns that the perpetrators are a group of disgraced former cops, led by Yau Kong-ngo (Nicholas Tse). Ngo, and the rest of his team, spent four years in prison, before their release six months prior to the events of this film, after a sting operation led by Bong (Ngo’s mentor and superior at that time) led to the subordinate leading a group in beating a man to death.
When taking to the stand in court at the trial, Bong has to admit that he saw them with the beaten man. Despite arguing that they were told to use any methods necessary, by the highest-ranking officer on duty that night, Ngo is disgraced, and holds all of his former colleagues responsible to refusing to speak out in his defence, when he was trying to rescue a businessman influential in the affairs of the city. Returning to his old haunts, Ngo will seek revenge of those he holds accountable for his fate.
The first and most negative point to make about Raging Fire is that it utterly fails any time it tries to be anything more than a straightforward actioner. Take the original sting operation at the start of the film. With that mission taking place that night, events begin with Bong going to work in the morning, seeing his boss, and gratefully taking receipt of some baby supplies from his superior; as he is about to have a son, and his boss has already had a daughter grow out of the clothes and toys. This two-minute interaction is all we see of the two men together, so when the commander is killed, we have little real feel for their relationship.
Yet the film decides to have him reminisce about scenes of the two of them together – played in slow motion. The footage they use is their short chat that morning. It is unintentionally hilarious that the film is trying to move us with brief events from a few hours before, which we’d seen only minutes earlier. We have short scenes of Bong with his wife, in order to drum up some feelings for their relationship – something the film will try to play into later in its running time – but it is fair to say that it is entirely possible to get through this film without even catching her name.
Towards the film’s denouement we get lectures on the nature of policing, of right and wrong, and of the necessary limits to police power. Ngo raises the point that had Bong chased the man he beat that night, their fates may have been reversed. In all honesty, while that might sound like an interesting thought experiment, the answer is staring us in the face: no it would not!
Bong is a straight and honest officer who, although he will use violence if necessary, is shown early in the film as incorruptible, refusing bribes, and demonstrably knowing where to stop. Although he pushes things later in the film a little far in defence of his family, there is nothing here to suggest that Ngo’s outcome was mere circumstance that would have transferred to his mentor had their roles been the other way around. This film does not do ‘deep’ well.
What it does spectacularly well, however, is mood and action. Set in a Hong Kong that, although fairly clean in appearance, evokes a nightmarish, Gotham-like rotten feel. Frequent heavy rain, and action even shifting to sewers and drains at times does speak to a job that involves the police having to get their hands dirtier than they’d often like.
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Fight choreography is leagues ahead of most of the competition, and slowing down or replaying scenes reveals extraordinary subtleties in some of the movement involved. The film is unashamedly violent, but never feels prurient. Around the halfway mark there is an extended fight/chase scene spanning foot, bike, and car, that is an all-timer in terms of quality. Deeply inventive, and keeping the tension level high, some of the action on display is supremely inventive. The film ends with an extended shoot-out that has an equivalent in Michael Mann’s Heat.
Raging Fire is a little too long. At 125 minutes there is a little too much time given over to exploring themes that the script is not strong enough to support. As a taut, 90-minute affair, this could have been perfect. That said, the quality of the visuals, the performances, and – of course – the action, adds up to an experience that is a lot of fun.
Raging Fire is out in Cinemas on 12th November, and on DVD, Digital and Blu-ray from 10th January 2022 from Trinity CineAsia.