Tuesday, August 17, 2021

Fantasia/New York Asian Film Festivals 2021 Extra: Raging Fire

Does it count as a festival detour if a film plays the festival you're covering, but you watch it at a regular theater? Points for when you're trying to decompress after a movie-packed weekend trip to New York City and overnight train trip home (which, yes, the blog will catch up to soon)? Or is it just going to a movie?

Anyway, I wasn't really thinking of Benny Chan's legacy when I wrote this - he's a HK filmmaker I'm anxious to catch up with, because I loved him going all 3D kung-fu spaghetti western in Call of Heroes and want to see what the heck Paul Rudd being dropped into a Hong Kong movie was like in Gen-Y Cops, plus a few Jackie Chans I haven't seen. It's a good hook for the EFC review, but I must admit that those Jackie Chan flicks made me think of him as Just A Guy, the sort of capable dude Jackie hires to get the skeleton of the movie built while he's in charge of the action, but he's clearly better than that, even if he never exactly become a big name on the order of John Woo, Johnnie To, or Dante Lam.

His last film has already opened in mainland China but is just hitting Hong Kong this weekend, and I wonder a bit how it's going to be received, what with it starring Donnie Yen as a cop in a movie that at least seems to make an argument that cops shouldn't be second-guessed, and this all could have been avoided if they'd just let someone beat a confession out of a suspect. I can't claim to have the finger on the pulse of the SAR, but given how aggressively downvoted Yen's movies have been on the HKMovie app I keep on my phone (because why not?), I wonder if this might be a little bit problematic, even if the folks there love Benny Chan and Nicholas Tse.

Weird thing about this movie and Donnie Yen in general: For someone who spent many of his early years in Boston, his English is always kind of weird in Hong Kong films, which is especially noticeable given that when Nicholas Tse (who spent a similar amount of time in North American when he was a kid) drops an English phrase, he sounds like a guy who legitimately speaks English. I always kind of wonder if Yen is deliberately trying to come across as less American for the Chinese audience.

Anyway, I hope this does well because Benny Chan's final film is a banger and copaganda elements aside, this sort of no-messing-around action is a terrific release and a lot more fun when you can see everybody knows what they're doing rather than doing a lot of cuts to suggest it.

Nou fo (Raging Fire)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 16 August 2021 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

Raging Fire arrives in theaters about a year after its director's death, and it must be an odd thing to leave behind a legacy like that of Benny Chan Muk-Sing: Some romance, some comedy, a weird kids' movie, but mostly mayhem, three decades or so in the movie business of putting together a string of punches, kicks, gunshots, and explosions for maximum excitement. Some filmmakers spend their later years using the chops they've developed on such crowd-pleasers to do something more personal or "important", but Chan passed too early for that. Perhaps it's fitting that his last work is some high-quality action that still ends with a question of whether things could have turned out differently.

As it opens, the HKPD is targeting a drug deal between Wang Kwun and Long Hair of the Viet gang, only to have a fourth group show up and turn it into a bloodbath, slaughtering both gangs and the cops. Maybe it would have turned out different if Cheung Chung-Bong (Donnie Yen Ji-Dan) and his team had arrived on time, but some petty higher-up took them off the assignment because Bong wouldn't change a report to get a rich man's son out of a jam. And, indeed, Bong's unflinching dedication to the rules may be even closer to the root of the whole situation; the assault was carried out by ex-cops led by Bong's former partner, Yau Kong-Ngo (Nicholas Tse Ting-Fung), who spent three years in jail because Bong wouldn't fudge his testimony after a suspect died in Ngo's company during a kidnapping investigation. Now, Ngo's team is out and looking to get paid - and, of course, revenge.

It's the sort of story one can pick at a lot if one is in the mood - with Ngo's team losing a guy during the first assault, and what the audience eventually flashes back to, either the HKPD should be onto him much earlier or there should be a reason why, and Bong has enough old friends, mentors, and the like on the force that they kind of become a middle-aged, suited blur. To the extent that the script by Chan and others has a theme, it's the fickleness of fate, with the idea being that if Ngo and Bong were given the others' assignments during that kidnapping four years ago, the film would have different heroes and villains (or at least it's hopefully that, rather than tough cops with guts should be given a free hand rather than be punished for it).

On the other hand, Chan and company don't play with the idea that their fates could be interchangeable that much, in large part because Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse are so clearly more suited for their respective roles. Tse dives into the villain role with apparent relish, suggesting that the self-effacing fellow seen in flashbacks was a skin he shed pretty naturally, selling that he can be calculating and ruthless even as he's full of rage. Yen, on the other hand, seems a bit stiffer than usual, maybe not exactly lacking charisma but using the squareness that comes natural to make Bong more by the book. Of course, he's not exactly there to be charismatic; he's there because he's still light on his feet despite hitting hard, and brings along his own quality action team. There are only two or three sequences where that sort of hand-to-hand combat are at the forefront, but they're good stuff, heavy-hitting slugfests that wreck everything around Bong and Ngo and let them wail on each other. Yen's at the point where his body can use a little more time pointing guns than throwing punches, but the finale in a church undergoing enough renovation to have scaffolding the play in is a blast to watch as it finally narrows the conflict down to these two guys directly.

And there's plentiful action along the way, with Chan and his team pouring plenty into the other big action pieces, from an opening bit of combat where the masks worn by Ngo's team adds atmosphere to the ruthlessness to a climactic daylight shootout where producers Chan and Yen have clearly ordered the large, John Woo-in-his-prime-sized boxes of blanks and squibs, with enough bystanders stuck in the crossfire to completely hammer home just how unhinged Ngo and his team have become. Chan and company use the action centerpiece to kick things up a notch, playing up Ngo's cleverness and ruthlessness and escalating the general level of damage he's willing to cause with a car-shredding chase that not only leads into another fun bit of cat and mouse but incidentally has a couple of the film's best comic beats, including Yen's semi-meta best line.

Could these two characters have each gone the other way? Maybe; that's certainly the idea Chan and company seem to want the audience pondering once the smoke clears. But ultimately they're who they are, and Chan was who he was, and that's a guy who, if not quite in the upper pantheon of Hong Kong's great action filmmakers, certainly capable of delivering the brand of high-impact action in Raging Fire like few of his contemporaries.

Also at eFilmCritic

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