Thursday, August 12, 2021

Benny Chan’s Raging Fire

This film could very well represent the end of an era. It is the final film of Hong Kong action auteur, Benny Chan, who helmed it through production, but had to bow out for post. It could also represent the swan song of the gritty HK cop-and-gangster genre that we know and love. As Xi and the CCP apply the draconian National Security Law to all aspects of HK life, we can expect local film production to increasingly mirror the propaganda churned out on the Mainland. It’s star, Donnie Yen, has publicly sided with the Party against the democracy protesters, so maybe he will be okay with that. Perhaps it is also telling this Yen vehicle is already playing in the PRC, but will open in HK after its American release. The star still has his moves, but the cultural climate has changed drastically (and not for the better) when Chan’s Raging Fire opens tomorrow in New York.

A few years prior, Bong and his protégé Ngo were working a high-profile kidnapping case. With the clock ticking, the two cops divvied up their prime suspects. Ngo’s team managed to beat the location of the victim out of their perp, but then they kept beating him into an early grave. Much to their surprise, the police brass scapegoated them for the entire affair. Now they are out of prison and looking for revenge. For compensation, Ngo’s gang also plans to grab some cash in some spectacularly messy armed heists.

In terms of themes and tone,
Raging Fire is a lot like Alan Yuen’s Firestorm, but it doesn’t take things quite as far. Were it not for the presence of Yen, a rather disappointing apologist for HK police brutality against the Umbrella Movement, it probably wouldn’t see release in its current form. In Chan’s screenplay, as he filmed it, the upper echelons of police leadership are shamelessly corrupt. Beating information out of suspects appears to be standard operating procedure and even the stalwart Bong does not appear excessively concerned over collateral damage. (Incidentally, the fraught pregnancy of Bong’s wife is rather lazily manipulative.)

Still, fans will be happy to see Chan, the genre veteran, stages several impressive action sequences. The final hands-to-hand confrontation between Bong and Ngo is especially satisfying. Yen shows his martial arts chops are still finely honed, but dramatically, he is content to coast, as Bong. In contrast, Nicholas Tse is a riveting presence power-brooding and death-ray-staring as Ngo. He makes a great villain, but that somewhat unbalances the film.

So, what might a HK police action movie look like in the future? Of course, the villains will either be the American military or Uyghur terrorists. Far from being corrupt, the HK politicians will give the heroes the necessary inspiration to see the fight through. Plus, shout-outs to Xi Jinping Thought. Anyone who follows me on Twitter might be rolling their eyes at my Hong Kong retweets by now, but here is how 7.5 million people losing their freedom directly affects you. Goodbye films like
Election and Infernal Affairs. Hello propaganda like My People, My Country.

At least this one got in under the wire, but it is hard to divorce it from the circumstances surrounding it. Chan got in his last hurrah and that’s cool, but the very concept of HK cops serving as heroic protagonists isn’t going to travel anymore, just like there is a reason we don’t regularly watch films about German policemen from the early 1940s. If you are generally looking for more Hong Kong action, check out the films of Andy Lau and Chow Yun-fat, who at times have appeared more supportive of real democratic change in HK. For Yen die-hards,
Raging Fire admittedly has considerable action-oriented merits and maybe accidentally reflects reality, to a partial extent. It opens tomorrow (8/13) in New York at the AMC Empire.