RETRO ACTIVE: City on Fire (1987)
by Nick Schager
[This week's "Retro Active" pick is inspired by the undercover-cop action of the 21 Jump Street remake.]
Women factor into City on Fire
but Ringo Lam
's 1987 crime saga is a strictly masculine affair awash in male love. An influence on Quentin Tarantino
's Reservoir Dogs
—with which it shares similarities both in terms of narrative (heists, undercover cops, gun standoffs, torture) and themes (shifting allegiances, loyalty, the boundary between nobility and criminality)—Lam's film pivots around Ko Chow (Chow Yun-Fat
), a brash Hong Kong police officer intent on retiring. Chow is introduced instigating an incident at a nightclub where his girlfriend Hung (Carrie Ng
) is spending time with another man, until his colleagues show up to arrest him in order to bring him to Inspector Lau (Yeuh Sun
), who wants him to assume a mission that led to the murder of another cop: to go undercover to break up a gang of deadly jewelry thieves. It's the first of two times that Chow is interrupted from trying to make things right with Hung (the later occasion takes place in a shower, on the eve of sex) by work—moments that, when coupled with scenes of the men joking around and caring for each other set to romantic piano twinkling, tellingly indicate how professional duty, and specifically Chow's relationship with Lau, take precedence over female concerns.
That Chow values brotherhood above everything else is further underlined by what transpires once he's undercover, as the cop's infiltration of the thieves' gang brings him into close contact, and friendship, with daring crook Fu (Danny Lee
). Fu is a killer who, during a botched robbery of a jewelry factory, murders a cop in bullet-to-the-head cold blood, and then—in a street-shootout escape that faintly recalls Michael Mann
's subsequent Heat
—blasts a cop car so expertly (and implausibly) that it flips and explodes. Despite such villainy, he and Chow become increasingly close, which Chow knows can only lead to trouble, given his destiny to betray Fu in the same manner that he did during a prior undercover stint that still haunts him in tortured dreams. "I fulfill my duties. But I betray my friends!" Chow tells Lau in an early attempt to avoid his assignment, articulating City on Fire
's central dramatic conflict, in which Chow is pitted between his devotion to Fu and Lau. That tension seeps into Lam's direction, with his pans through crowded nighttime city streets oozing restless energy, and a close-up of a gun having its chambers spun and a climactic shot of firearms pointed at (and visually boxing in) Chow's face all energized by stylish volatility.
Lam's camera is rarely still, and there's electricity to his depiction of Hong Kong's nocturnal scene, full of bustling crowds, neon lights and an overriding sense that violence lurks around every corner and in every dark alley, just waiting to burst into the light. So pervasive is this atmosphere that Chow's more tender interactions with Hung feel illusory—an impression that comes to the fore late in the film, when Chow and Fu bond over shared stories of being abandoned by women, and Chow clings to an implausible dream of reuniting with Hung in Hawaii and living happily ever after. In City on Fire
, real romance springs forth from male camaraderie, epitomized by Chow and Fu hanging out of car windows and staring at passing women while truly concentrating on playfully smashing food into each other's faces. Consequently, it's fierce, masculine energy that dominates the proceedings, whose action often involves Chow furiously running through the streets—and, in a signature image, madly sliding down the partition that separates subway escalator rails—to avoid arrest by the men of Inspector John Chan (Roy Cheung
), a young upstart intent on busting Chow for providing guns to the crooks, regardless of his undercover-agent status.
Lam's saxophone-punctuated, wannabe-noir portrait of macho affection and the blurred line between good and bad wouldn't fly without Chow Yun-Fat, whose manic energy, lighthearted goofiness, and soulful sensitivity define the film's tone. It's no surprise that City on Fire
helped pave the way for Chow's ascension into a Hong Kong icon (a status fully achieved with 1989's The Killer
), as he dominates virtually every frame despite being asked to vacillate between being a hard-as-nails badass, a tortured loner, and a childish jokester. Chow synthesizes those competing attitudes with a charismatic naturalness that does much to sell the story's contrived, underdeveloped depiction of its hero's angst-ridden dilemma over whether to protect or arrest Fu, which comes to a head during a finale illuminated by light shining through bullet holes in a wall that finds Chow forced to choose between personal safety and faithfulness to comrades. His performance is ultimately defined, however, by the earlier sight (repeated at film's end) of him attempting to pick up a woman's fallen bag and, when halted from completing that act, breaking into a smiling, spinning dance, his confident cool as magnetic as it is effortless.
Posted by ahillis at March 18, 2012 1:54 PM