Tuesday, July 08, 2014

NYAFF ’14: Firestorm

Despite an innate laissez-faire attitude towards government, Hong Kong has always trusted its police. That is why there was such profound disappointment when the cops broke up recent pro-democracy demonstrations, as per their instructions from above. That might seem ironic for those raised on a steady diet of Johnnie To-John Woo rogue cop thrillers, but the general populace has always been willing to forgive a little corner-cutting to bring down the baddest baddies. However, Inspector Liu Ming-chit will take off-the-books justice to a whole new level of recklessness in Alan Yuen’s Firestorm 3D (trailer here), which screens during the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival.

Fronting as an art dealer, Mainland armed robber Cao Nan and his gang have been running circles around the police in general and the by-the-book Inspector Liu in particular. They enjoy a challenge and don’t give a toss how many bystanders are killed in the process. When Liu’s old high school judo partner To Shing-bong is released from prison, he rejoins Cao Nan’s outfit, while pretending to keep on the straight and narrow for the benefit of his loyal girlfriend, Law Yin-bing.

Liu is a cool, frosty cat, but the dead bodies start to push him towards the edge of legality. When a shocking atrocity hits home, the Inspector finally takes a running leap into the dark side. Of course, that leads to complications, culminating in a massively explosive shootout right smack in the middle of Hong Kong’s financial district that would even leave Michael Bay dazed and exhausted.

Even though there is no sex or nudity and little foul language to speak of, Firestorm is all about sheer excess. Whether it is the amped up action sequences, the over-the-top 3D effects, or the shameless emotional manipulation, writer-director Yuen has no patience for half measures. The last half hour or so is simply a jaw-dropper of an action set piece, spectacularly choreographed by Chin Kar-lok.

If you have a problem with entire city blocks blowing up than Firestorm is not for you. Nevertheless, Andy Lau’s work proves there really is such a thing as an action performance. He broods so hard you can see the steam coming out of his ears, elevating Liu to the level of classical tragedy. On the flip side, Hu Jun is magnetically steely as the uncannily unruffled Cao Nan.

Yao Chen manages to scratch a few decent scenes as the thankless Law, which is saying something, considering how testosterone-driven the film is. Unfortunately, second-lead Gordon Lam’s macho slow burn as To suffers in comparison with Lau and Hu. However, the film is peppered with terrific supporting turns, including Michael Wong hamming it up as Liu’s boss and young Jacqueline Chan demolishing viewers’ heartstrings as his disadvantaged god-daughter.

There is no room for subtlety or hand-wringing in Firestorm. It is simply too busy firing RPGs into crowded city streets. Given the magnitude of it all, you wouldn’t think this is Yuen’s first solo turn in the director’s chair, but the screenwriter comes strong and lays it down with authority. Recommended for action fans who like a movie to shake them by the lapels, Firestorm screens tomorrow (7/9) at the Walter Reade Theater, as part of this year’s NYAFF.