Film Review: City on Fire (1987)
Before Quentin Tarantino made Reservoir Dogs (or, for that matter, Kathryn Bigelow made Point Break), Ringo Lam made City on Fire.
City on Fire is something of the ur-“Undercover Cop builds a friendship with his target” movie. The film follows Ko Chow (Chow Yun Fat), a Hong Kong cop who is working undercover as an arms dealer. Chow is is haunted by a previous case, where he’d built a rapport with a previous target, who ended up being killed in the course of the arrest. In addition to the usual stresses of working undercover, he’s also running into issues with his fiancee, Hung (Carrie Ng), who doesn’t think Chow is serious about their relationship, and is planning to elope with a rich businessman.
Chow’s current case, and the case he intends to be his last case, has him tasked with busting a ring of armed robbers who have been robbing jewelry stores throughout Hong Kong. They’d killed the last undercover cop who tried to investigate their group, and their last robbery lead to the deaths of several officers and civilians. Chow’s contact is Fu (Danny Lee Sau-yin), and after Fu buys guns from Chow, he vouches for Chow to their boss, who recruits him for the job.
From there, well, this film is cited as an inspiration for Reservoir Dogs for a reason.
The film is very well shot – Lam stages his action scenes very well. A lot of the film is shot on location on the streets of Hong Kong, and Lam, and his cinematographer Andrew Lau (who would later direct the Infernal Affairs and Young & Dangerous films) are really great at putting those shots together. The internal sets are much more confined than you normally see in western films, and as the film progresses, I noticed that the scenes that Chow are in get more and more confined, and, and more and more cluttered and claustrophobic.
Probably the best example of this comes when the heist goes bad, and the thieves return to the hideout. In Reservoir Dogs, they’re in a wide open warehouse, with plenty of room for the actors and camera to move. By comparison, in City on Fire, the hideout is a fairly confined shack, and so as the law closes in, we visually get a sense that the walls are closing in as well.
The film does have some significant issues though. The female characters are not written well. In particular, the character of Hung is written as an unreasonable gold digger. She is shown as caring for Ko Chow, but her choices are depicted as being less like someone who cares about her boyfriend and is trying to get him to settle down, and more like someone who is looking for the “better deal.” I mean, that’s certainly her prerogative, but it’s a negative stereotype.
The Hong Kong PD is also written kinda poorly. The officer tasked with investigating the robbers, John Chan (Roy Cheung) goes beyond being arrogant (which is what the actor is clearly shooting for) to just being written as stupid. He’s informed, on multiple occasions, that one of the people he’s trying to arrest – Ko Chow – is an undercover cop (at least in the dub), but he refuses to believe that, and is only willing to humor the concept when he’s told to do so by his superior.
I’ve seen undercover cop films where the cop was told that they were too close or a loose cannon and threatened with being pulled from the case because of that. I’ve never seen a detective in these films, when informed that the PD had a man on the inside, deny what they were just told.
Still, the film is well put together. The Heroic Bloodshed genre borrows a lot from Film Noir and pre-Hays Code gangster films, and this film definitely shows that, making this definitely worth checking out.