'Sky on Fire'
Ringo Lam was one of the great filmmakers of Hong Kong’s golden age of bullet-fu action, probably best known for ‘City of Fire’, the movie Quentin Tarantino infamously lifted a variety of plot points from for ‘Reservoir Dogs’. When the Hong Kong action industry slowly devolved, Lam found himself working on a series of increasingly horrible Jean-Claude Van Damme movies until recently returning home. His latest feature, ‘Sky on Fire’, recalls the highs and lows of those heady HK shootout movie days.
It’s no masterpiece, but the spectacle is worth the show whenever unfortunately cheap CGI isn’t involved.
In accordance with the Hong Kong action genre, ‘Sky on Fire’ is a mix of hardcore action and cornball melodrama that frequently flails whenever there isn’t a character on camera with a gun. The convoluted plot is set into motion by a truck driver (Joseph Chang) who falls into a ludicrous corporate conspiracy while trying to find a cure for his sister’s cancer. A secret shipment from a pharmaceutical giant is hijacked by phony cops, forcing the security chief (Daniel Wu) to uncover what’s happened. The conspiracy involves some sort of stem cell research that the company was working on, which could potentially cure cancer. Some people want to release the drug to the public, while others want to hold it back for profit. There are suicidal scientists and evil corporate leaders. To be honest, it can be tough to keep the plot straight because it doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. But boy oh boy, are those explosions pretty.
First things first, ‘Sky on Fire’ exists primarily for its action scenes, and they deliver. Like the Hong Kong action flicks of old, the film seems to have been shot with an almost willful disregard for the safety of its stunt men and actors. Car chases spill out through uncomfortably close alleys with stunt performers flung around like rag dolls in the carnage. Shootouts are constant. Everyone has a handgun handy and knows exactly how to use it. The violence is bloody and intense, but executed with a certain balletic choreography that’s impossible not to admire. It may have been thirty years since Lam was at the peak of an industry that specialized in this particular brand of action insanity, but he appears to have not lost a step, and as usual shoots all the action through beautifully constructed cinematic set-pieces.
Show up to ‘Sky on Fire’ for old school Hong Kong action from Ringo Lam and you’ll get exactly that. Unfortunately, the pretty boom-boom comes with all the pitfalls of those old flicks and a few new ones too. The story is almost a soap opera in its overplayed emotions and unnecessarily sprawling cast. While there are some attempts to make a statement about Big Pharma, they’re just kind of window dressing and never actually grow into anything particularly insightful or easy to follow.
It’s hard to ever get too wrapped up in any of the characters or their absurdly overblown emotions given that they have the depth of action figures and the whiny inner life of teens with diaries. Performances are perfunctory. Gender roles aren’t exactly enlightened. Worst of all, the big company at the center is housed in an absolutely horrible CGI skyscaper that somehow looks worse every time it’s on screen. Lam might know how to stage physical spectacle with skill and style, but any time he stretches out into digital effects, things fall apart quickly and dramatically.
‘Sky on Fire’ isn’t exactly Ringo Lam’s finest hour. This is the work of a filmmaker past his prime trying to recapture his old magic but struggling with the new toys and tools available to him. However, while Lam may have made some action classics, it’s not as if he worked in a genre or industry that was known for its deeply satisfying art about the human condition. HK action flicks were always a little corny and campy and even crappy. Many of the plotting and character flaws here can be giggled away in a manner that’s just as nostalgic as all the shootout set-pieces bouncing off the screen.
The film may be quite flawed, but it’s always fun, and seeing this level of visceral, physical action is a welcome surprise. Anyone who has a sweet tooth for lovingly ludicrous Hong Kong action movies should get a little nostalgic over this one.