Runtime: 126 minutes
Director: Benny Chan
Writer: Benny Chan, Ryan Ling, Tong Yiu-ling
Cast: Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Qin Lan, Ray Lui, Ben Yuen, Ben Lam, Ken Lo, Carlos Chan, Patrick Tam, Jeana Ho, Kenny Wong, Deep Ng, Simon Yam
By Harris Dang
Set-in modern-day Hong Kong, “Raging Fire” (2021) tells the story of police detective Bong (Donnie Yen), a resilient man who is renowned in the police force for his incorruptible mind and his steadfast attitude towards police justice, almost to the detriment of his colleagues. But not all of his success was achieved through smooth sailing when his past comes back to haunt him when a police raid goes wrong, leaving many cops dead and heavily injured.
Enter Ngo (Nicholas Tse), a hardened, unruly and tortured criminal who leads a crew in becoming hired mercenaries. The crew were all formerly cops and Ngo was Bong’s partner. But 3 years ago, a choice was made that changed their relationship and their lives forever, leading the two to a fiery showdown filled with vengeance, corruption and of course, plenty of explosions and fisticuffs.
“Raging Fire” is the last film from acclaimed Hong Kong director Benny Chan, who recently passed away during the film’s post-production due to nasopharyngeal cancer. His most known film is the 1989 romantic crime drama “A Moment of Romance” (1990) which wowed critics and audiences with its passionate direction for and from all involved so that it has long since been in popular culture and still resonates today. He is also known for his contributions to creating stellar bouts of action and his equally explosive drama, including his numerous collaborations with Jackie Chan and his many “cops and robbers” flicks.
After his box office and critical flop “Meow” (2016) (which was meant to be a respite away from action blockbusters), he is now back in form with “Raging Fire”, an action-packed experience that displays his talents as well as some positives in his direction that are quite surprising. With a lot of his work, Chan’s handling of the drama in his storytelling tends to veer into farce as he does not know when to stop leading to unintentionally hilarious moments evident in films like “The White Storm” (2013), “New Police Story” (2004) and “Divergence” (2005).
Yet surprisingly, Chan has a stronger handling here, knowing when to end the scene when the drama hits its peak. One scene involves Bong fighting a crime boss in a sewer and it culminates into a bout of rage that would have veered into comedy . There still numerous amounts of scenes where cops declare that they are cops to other cops – yes, it is as silly as it sounds – but considering Chan’s film output, it is a noticeable improvement for Chan and it really should be commended.
Chan also gets a better handling out of his actors. With numerous supporting actors (many of them being collaborators of Chan) that all add credibility to their roles regardless of screen time (including Qin Lan, Simon Yam, Ben Yuen, Ray Lui, Jeana Ho, Deep Ng, Kenny Wong, Patrick Tam and more). Yen does the tough maverick cop role in the part of Bong in his sleep but it is his understated moments that truly stand out, particularly in a scene in the third act that involves a contemplative reflection that could have been amusingly cheesy.
Tse is compellingly explosive in the role of Ngo. Over the years, Tse has played several villains (including the boisterously campy role in Chen Kaige’s fantasy epic “The Promise” (2005)) but in “Raging Fire”, he is able to combine convincing rage (similar to his role in Dante Lam‘s crime film “Beast Stalker” (2008)) and an element of unpredictability to create a memorable foil for Yen.
But what readers are really looking forward to reading about is the action. How does it fare? With Li Chung-chi handling the car stunts, Yen being the action director and Kenji Tanigaki, Ku Huen-Chiu and Chris Collins behind the action, you can expect the best. The set pieces are grounded considering the genre framework but they pack a punch both physically and creatively. In a small yet inspired moment in the choreography, Bong is battling numerous goons in a shack as they try to enter in the vicinity. Noticing that the goons have knives, Bong takes off his bulletproof vest and wraps it around his arm to avoid being cut.
Another inspired moment is when Yen stages a fistfight between himself and Tse while he is driving a car and Tse is riding a motorcycle with the two vehicles entangled in a position that makes the melee feel refreshing and exciting. It also helps that the fight scenes are populated with actual martial artists including former Jackie Chan stunt team members Ken Lo and Ben Lam and Donnie Yen stunt team members Yu Kang and Kenji Tanigaki, and even Nicholas Tse.
It feels satisfying to see Yen and Tse go head-to-head and not just because they are hero and adversary. Tse has collaborated with Yen before in the 2006’s martial arts comic book adaptation “Dragon Tiger Gate“. With Yen at the helm of action direction, he has trained Tse before so to see the two go from master and student to equals felt strangely empowering. The two engage in fisticuffs that range from brutal use of weaponry (including knives, batons and sledgehammers), the use of MMA in the choreography (showcasing grappling and jiujitsu) and utilizing the environment for their own means (being set in a church that is yet to be completely constructed, the use of pianos, windows, scaffolding) to maximum impact and it exhilarates.
As for the film’s flaws, Chan was never really into giving his female cast members anything to do (although Jeana Ho is almost unrecognizable as one of Bong’s crew) and Qin Lan (who is credited in the main cast) has bafflingly little to do here but worry for her husband and wait to be rescued. There are some unintentionally amusing moments that are due to China’s film censorship including the fact that the villains are from Vietnam (hilariously called the Viet Gang) because the Chinese would never cause major crimes(!), only outside foreigners do. Other flaws are that some of the stunts are noticeably CGI and lastly (which is almost inevitable) is that some of the English subtitles are riddled with errors. At one point, Yen is berating his colleagues and the subtitle actually says, “Are you farting with me?”
Overall, “Raging Fire” is a fitting swan song from Benny Chan that showcases all of his skills in conjuring the best of action spectacle and providing top-notch blockbuster entertainment.
Yet in this reviewer’s eyes, we have lost one of the greats in Hong Kong cinema. His handling of both drama and action in the extreme may not have been the best but his work was always engaging in a way that made the audience feel emotionally involved. Considering the tedium in action cinema today, it is a wonderful thing.
You will be missed.
“Raging Fire” will be showing at the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival. Click the picture below to explore the festival program.