Donnie Yen stars in Raging Fire, the Hong Kong/Chinese actioner that’s hitting domestic cinemas on Friday (via Well Go USA) as it nears $100M at the China box office. Directed by the late Benny Chan, it introduces us to Yen’s character, Shan, as a principled cop who’s protective of his pregnant wife (who rarely speaks). Shan is in pole position for his domestic idyll to be shattered by corrupt colleagues who are more interested in cash from criminals than following the law. When Shan refuses to take a bribe from a powerful source, the bodies start piling up in a series of set pieces that dominate this action-packed but clichéd thriller.
The first act draws a simple line between good and bad cops, using heavy signaling and an overuse of flashbacks. These are typically employed to remind the audience of a scene they saw just minutes previously. In an early funeral scene, they’re also used to signify the grief of our hero as he remembers his friend — using only memories of the past few days. It’s a clumsy device that undermines the potential emotional impact.
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The good cop/bad cop contrast continues with a series of episodes that underline each one’s character — chiefly concerning Ngo (Nicholas Tse), Shan’s former protégé who has become a fully fledged criminal, leading a gang of ruthless assassins for hire.
The characterization becomes slightly more nuanced as the tension between Shan and Ngo develops. There’s a suggestion that a key event means their fate took different paths. And there’s an evocative scene in an interrogation room, in which Ngo refers to the smell of the space he hasn’t been in for so long. More time on such scenes would have enhanced both their bond and their rivalry, but this isn’t Heat. It’s all about the action.
As such, Raging Fire often delivers. Its extravagant, elaborate car chase scenes are a highlight, and liable to cause audiences to gasp and laugh in shock and awe (look out for a crazy kid-saving moment). This scene also uses aerial filming to great effect.
It feels a little hypocritical to be preaching peace and goodness while relishing in a huge amount of hand-to-hand combat, knives, grenades and gunfire, but that’s nothing new in this genre. What this could have used is more self-aware humor: it takes itself incredibly seriously.
Raging Fire is an accomplished visual feat with detailed fight choreography and strong physical performances. But it’s definitely for those more swayed by guns than gags, and by action than character.
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