For those who are fans of Hong Kong’s bountiful martial arts action cinema, the name Benny Chan is one you likely think of fondly. The filmmaker had a career in Hong Kong cinema dating back to the 90s, with his name attached to many favourites in the action genre. From the Andy Lau Moment of Romance movies to the Jackie Chan adventures of Who Am I and New Police Story, Chan made a name for himself as one of the most dependable directors of this breed, giving his stars the space to strut their acrobatic stuff in elegant fashion. It is a career built on a solid foundation of coherent, no-fuss action sequences that simply let the well-choreographed ballet of flyings kicks and fast hands do the talking.
Chan sadly passed away last year at the age of 58 after a short battle with cancer. Raging Fire – the last film he was working on (which he did manage to complete before his passing) saw him work with another action icon in the form of Donnie Yen. It is a classic tale of the genre, one of ‘good cops and bad cops’ and the enduring fight to do what’s right. Those looking for an instant classic to act as a glory-filled capstone to Chan’s career may be slightly disappointed. But as a testament to his skills as a filmmaker, Raging Fire certainly brings the heat.
Yen plays the righteous and dedicated police inspector Cheung Sung-bong. Never one to be deterred from his principles – even in the face of the rich elite who even manage to make his superior’s bend to their will – Bong is highly respected by his peers, even if his refusal to bend the rules has delayed a much-deserved promotion. He will need all the strength and resilience he can muster though when a case involving a new gang in the city starts leaving a body of cops in its wake. It soon becomes clear that is the work of an old protege turned criminal – Yau Kong-ngo (Nicholas Tse) – who is out to take revenge on those he believes are responsible for the dark path his life has taken.
Raging Fire is not an action film that radically shakes up its tale of a righteous cop just trying to do the right thing in an unjust world. You’ve seen this playbook rolled out numerous times before – and in a much more compelling fashion (think Heat and even some of Chan’s Police Story movies). Yen’s hero is a very vanilla protagonist, whose main characteristic is that he won’t break the rules for anybody, with a pretty cliched subplot involving a wife with a baby on the way acting as some means of providing an emotional connection.
His dedication to the police force of Hong Kong – often played to a highly glorifying trumpet blazing tune – paired with the rather thin character work attributed to the other officers in his team, make for an odd depiction of the Hong Kong police services. There’s a hint at corruption in the higher levels, but the film’s overall message ultimately ends up being of ‘not all cops are bad’ – which feels somewhat uneasy in what has been a very complex societal issue in recent times.
The story is more successful when it does try touching on the darker, more morally complex issues at its heart surrounding corruption within institutions. Nicholas Tse as Yau Kong-ngo may play his villain pretty broadly when it comes to the final act, but there are times when the film makes Kong-ngo a very sympathetic figure, one whose destiny has been forced down a dark path by people more powerful than himself, and whom he regretfully trusted. But ultimately, the film is not that interested in probing too deep into this character, largely instead focusing on the expected plot mechanics of a police procedural, and the far less interesting Inspector Bong.
Where the film truly excels – and let’s face it, why everyone is really here – is in its action sequences. The choreography from Yen and his fight team is exceptional and often incredibly exciting to behold. Incredibly brutal at times and fast-paced, but never in a way that you lose a sense of the story or what is happening, some of the sequences here stand as some of the very best action scenes of the year. The actors are entirely committed to the dance-like showdowns, shot with a clear sense of space, well-paced editing and stylish lashings of lighting on occasion.
The hand-to-hand combat is always more interesting than gunplay, but even then there’s an incredible sense of environmental awareness given to the shootouts. There are echoes of Michael Mann in some of their locations (there’s a motorway shoot out following a bank heist, a-la-Heat), but the bloody detail and Chan’s absolute ease of displaying mounting action are clear in every individual action sequence. They’re worth the ticket price, even if you have to sit through a lot of rudimentary plotting and questionable political minefields to get there.
Raging Fire may not be up there with Chan’s best work in the genre. But as a statement as to the type of director he was when it comes to the high octane goodies, it is a worthy final word. It is easy to underestimate just how exciting it is to see an action movie with such inventive choreography that often leaves you uttering ‘ooh, ‘ow’ and ‘argh’ throughout, shot in a fashion that makes it all easy to understand without a choppy quick edit in sight. There is a confidence behind the camera here, one that trusts its performers to deliver, and let the impressive physicality speak for itself in well-designed moments of action.
Far from original – and a little murky in its agenda – Raging Fire is nonetheless terrifically directed when it comes to delivering thrilling action sequences. If only there were more of them.
3 out of 5 stars