Between August 1986 and February 1987, two movies came out that kicked the Hong Kong film industry into high gear, turned Chow Yun-fat into a superstar, and revived their respective directors’ careers. The first was the romantic, hyper-stylized pistol opera A Better Tomorrow, directed by John Woo, and the second was the gritty, social-outrage heist film City on Fire, directed by Ringo Lam. Where Woo’s movie was full of grand gestures and larger-than-life Seldom screened today, City on Fire is one of the most iconic and legendary Hong Kong movies of all time (in part because Quentin Tarantino stole the plot and certain shots for Reservoir Dogs).
Chow Yun-fat plays a cop who’s gone so deep undercover that only his boss knows he’s a cop. A bunch of ruthless strong-arm bandits have been ripping off jewelry stores and Chow gets a chance: break up the job they have planned for Christmas and he can come in from the cold. Chow reluctantly agrees but winds up discovering that he’s got more in common with the gang foreman, played by Danny Lee, than his own bosses.
What does City on Fire, shot in 1986, have to offer viewers in 2015? Two things. First, the performances. Danny Lee is the cool older brother everyone wishes they had, and bit parts are played by a rogue’s gallery of some of Hong Kong’s best character actors. And Chow Yun-fat’s mercurial undercover cop still delivers 20,000 watts of star power. The other thing City on Fire offers is Lam’s worldview. A precursor of The Wire, this flick shows us a city whose institutions feed on the blood of the poor. It’s a passionate portrait of the little people trying to eke out a living on both sides of the law and dying for their trouble. City on Fire was released in 1987. Twenty-eight years later, that city still burns. --FSLC