City On Fire

Year: 1987
Production Co: Cinema City
Director: Ringo Lam
Writer: Sai-Shing Shum /Sai-Shing Shum
Cast: Chow-Fun Fat

Just the way I imagine a lot of cult cinema fans did, the only reason I watched this movie was because of the influence it had over Reservoir Dogs, and it wasn't until it was too late (ie it came right near the end of a movie that wasn't very interesting) that I realised Tarantino had apparently only been homaging a single scene.

Echoing the climax of his blistering debut crime caper, it sees four of the members of a gang of robbers pointing guns at each other in a tense standoff. As is his usual m.o., Tarantino ends things with everyone dead or mortally wounded. In Ringo Lam's thriller, it goes the same way as a million other movies with someone defusing the tension and everyone slowly lowering their guns. You can almost hear the Chinned One in the background jabbering 'how fucking cool would it be if they all fired?!?'

In City On Fire, the characters find themselves in that position because the mistrust and allegiances finally boil over between the gang and the undercover cop in their midst – it's about the character played by Tim Roth in Reservoir Dogs, a cop who seems to find himself more sympathetic to his adopted gang, even teetering on ethical lines.

Chow (Chow Yun Fat) has been forcibly bought back out of retirement by his superior to investigate a spate of jewel robberies across Hong Kong (which was somthing else Dogs was similarly homaging). He and his senior officer hatch a plan to approach the gang and sell black market guns to them, giving him a way in where he might learn about their next targets.

As Chow gets in deeper, he unwittingly bonds with gang member Fu, trying to tease out the information about their plans without giving himself away, and when the big job they've been planning goes south and they find themselves pinned down by the cops in a firefight in the streets, Chow finds himself wanting to defend his rebellious new brothers, especially friend Fu.

They scrape out a desperate escape with their numbers depleted, and when other members of the gang accuse Chow of somehow tipping the authorities off, it leads to the iconic deadlock.

Unfortunately none of the rest of City On Fire is as fun or distinctive as the climactic moment and Tarantino's simply a better director than Ringo Lam (in this case at least). There's plenty of action, but none of it's terribly groundbreaking. It's probably more so that the era and setting makes me think of the kind of thing John Woo did with Chow Yun Fat back in their early days, single takes of him emptying endless clips into bad guys across restaurants or massage parlours.

City On Fire is instead punctuated by long periods of drama and story (including a pretty kitschy subplot of Chow trying to appease his girlfriend and fulfil his promise to marry her) that just leaves you wanting more of the guns, driving and fighting you know the Hong Kong crime film movement for.

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