The past two decades or so proved to be a pretty interesting era in Asian movies. Specifically, new blood entered the arena by the late nineties to carry onward the legacy and momentum of Hong Kong cinema following its latest crossovers of Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Michelle Yeoh, placing younger stars like actor Nicholas Tse firmly in the spotlight as the terrain shifted. The result has seen the trajectory expanded on significantly more prospective terms as, namely speaking, Yen’s pursuits saw him traveling the world for productions on both sides of the lens, while the likes of Tse and his Gen-X Cops helmer Benny Chan – director of Yen’s 1995 incarnation of Fist Of Fury – would eventually see the two collaborate several times over from 2004 through 2011.
A director for more than twenty years, Chan’s films draw me to several conclusions about his work – the biggest one being that above all else, he knows how to construct and deliver explosive, big scale action sequences. That fact never escapes anyone who’s daily intake of martial arts fandom at one point included watching the rooftop fight in Jackie Chan’s Who Am I?, and this especially concerns one of my favorites, Invisible Target (2007), in which Tse plays a vengeful cop locked in battle with Wu Jing’s indefatigable villain inside a police station. It’s a film that contributed amply to Tse’s own fruition in action stardom, particularly after getting to share the fight scene stage with Donnie Yen in Wilson Yip’s 2005 live-action manhua adaptation, Dragon Tiger Gate, on which revealing behind-the-scenes video put on full display the range of patience and discipline it took for Tse to take action direction under Yen for an opening fight sequence.
That both Yen and Tse have remained on their respective trajectories up to now, after sharing screen credits in Teddy Chan’s Bodyguards And Assassins (2009), feels like quite the reward worth waiting for now, considering the two were once supposed to star in a project together back in 2012, which never panned out. For this, we get Raging Fire, an action thriller that places Yen back in the driver’s seat of the kind of Hong Kong cop thriller that’s garnered him immense fanfare and ceremony since his titanic screen clash with Sammo Hung in S.P.L. (2005), and upping the ante even further with a fully-loaded MMA brawlfest opposite Collin Chou in Yip’s blistering martial arts cop thriller, Flash Point.
Barring the hit-or-miss stature of Clarence Fok’s Special ID (2013), writer/director Chan owned up invariably to the effort of reigniting similar energy to each fan favorite predecessor. The good news is that none of it feels too much like a pointless regurgitation of something Yen has already done with other directors, and the key here though, as always, is in the writing – how characters are written and developed per the story and its intent right down to the final act. In this case, it’s a story of a bonded friendship among brothers of the badge, broken in an instant following a procession of political dissent against courruption in the upper echelons of law enforcement, which results in even more malfeasance, a botched raid, and the violent escalation of a small gang of mercenaries bent on getting rich while making the police suffer no matter what.
We firstly meet Regional Crime Unit officer Cheung (Yen), en route to what looks like a violent situation in the dead of a rainy night. The footage rewinds abruptly and we see our protagonist, a happily married man and father-to-be, as he and his team receive intel by their superiors about a major deal set to go down between two drug gangs. After setting a proverbial fire to a table full of courrupt officials and a groveling colleague looking for an easy in with the bosses, it isn’t long before Cheung learns he and his unit were iced out of plans for that evening’s raid, forcing Cheung to take matters in his own hands. By the time he gets to the scene of the crime where both gangs, as well as the police, are slaughtered by a seemingly elusive group of masked and uniquely trained gunmen, Cheung is left in mourning, and itching for an arrest.
Chasing clues on the missing drugs at the awry deal eventually unearths the identity of the man bankrolling the mercs’ activities. For Cheung, the surprise comes when he begins suspecting that it was all the actions of a quintet of former police officers, including Cheung’s own mentee, Ngo (Tse), all of whom fell ill to the career malfeasance of a zero-sum judicial system following a fatal use-of-force arrest. As the gang lays low and a slip-up forces the gang back on the run, their impasse teeters ultimately between battling the police with bullets one day, and wits the next, with Cheung still yet to mitigate the irksome formalities of his superiors when a desperate moment to save innocent lives puts him on the hook. What ensues for Cheung afterward, is a hail-mary chance to foil the killers’ next nefarious plot and finally bring Ngo to justice, dead or alive.
Tackling similar themes that often come with the package of telling an underdog cop story with a twist, Raging Fire casts Yen in a role that suits him more than well. It had been years since he was on the set of a Benny Chan film at that, and my guess is there are fans out there who were curious to see what a Yen/Chan cop thriller would look like. Yen’s Cheung shares the same space at times as that of his role in Flash Point as Ma Kwun in that while both characters respect authority, however myopic that authority is, they each feel that respect goes both ways. In Cheung’s case, that parochialism is entrenched in the type of blaring courruption and malfeasance that has visibly massive consequences, the likes of which are never suffered, if not rarely, by those responsible.
Raging Fire sets up its narrative by smartly crafting a story in which the odds are stacked against a small squad of cops in a work environment beleagured by a malversive, career-centric hierarchy, as illustrated by the incessant wheedling of Cheung’s colleague, Beau (Patrick Tam) to make him look good in front of their superiors. Even just as insulting is that this moment is the result of Cheung’s own impressive arrest record, which laughably makes him the envy of his crab-in-a-barrel higher-ups. Cheung’s dogged disposition also serves as the defining axis when we meet Ngo, a cop whose own moral compass is revealed to be less than impressive in the days following that fateful night. It’s an earnest depiction of one cop noticeably struggling to provide nuance in a courtroom that deals in absolutes in the face of his own morality, versus another cop whose own twisted sense of loyalty turns him mad with rage overtime, even despite once being a good person.
Included in the overall fallout of things, is the role that the affluent and venal play from start to finish. To Ngo, they are all targets, and it’s only a matter of time before they meet their maker, whether it’s by his own hand or those of another. Adding fuel to the fire of his hatred is the growth he’s undergone while behind bars under the duress and abuse of imprisonment, all of which is mainly implied in the film’s dialogue, leaving only the remainder of the film as a visual aid. However inexplicable, Ngo’s transformation from fallible, albeit staunch man of the badge to an elite, highly-trained killer with an extra heavy-duty penchant for laying waste to his victims with a pair of Balisong knives and some handy Pekiti Tirsia Kali training to boot, safely asserts a promising plausibility, next to the bolstering spectacle.
It is said that “a story is only as good as its villain”, and to that end, the imaginably vigorous work Tse put in while training for his character is on full display, and is a lot of fun to watch when paired with the drama that unfolds between our hero and Ngo. He’s given enough screentime to convey how much of a handful he’ll be for Cheung going forward, from the action, to some of the more cerebral and intense moments, including one that leaves you with some discernible, and acute Joker vibes a la Heath Ledger in The Dark Knight. Fans of Yen’s resume may also take a liking to several other of the action’s star’s on-screen reunions, namely S.P.L. and Ip Man 1 & 2 co-star Simon Yam, and Special ID cohort Ken Low, as well as Flash Point actors Ray Lui and Ben Lam, the latter who also appeared with Yen in Wong Jing’s The Saint Of Gamblers, and in Yen’s 1997 sophomore directorial thriller, Legend Of The Wolf.
From there, the invariably impressive action sequences meant for a film of this caliber should go without saying. Much to our own chagrin though, we live in a timeline where no matter how much progress was made in the world of action filmmaking, as seen from the resumès of such directors as Chad Stahelski and David Leitch (John Wick franchise, Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2), and independent auteurs like Eric Jacobus (Contour), Dennis Ruel (Unlucky Stars), Fabien Garcia (Die Fighting) and Bao Tran (The Paper Tigers) to name a few, there are still lingering elements in the echelons of Hollywood that still won’t let up on the ever-prevalent business-as-usual approach to action direction: The kind that’s drawn trade news criticisms of late for movies like Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins, a film which, by all accounts considering its stunt team’s involvement of action and stunt legend Kenji Tanigaki (The Rurouni Kenshin franchise), should have been a momentous game changer; The kind that all but celebrated the long-awaited release of Mortal Kombat by way of its record-breaking red-band trailer, only to in part mount to fan brouhaha, and outlets way larger than mine weighing in on the film’s merits compared to its animated counterparts; The kind that, safe to say, has some fans nervous about what to expect with the arrival of Marvel’s Shang-Chi And The Legend Of The Ten Rings next month regardless of how nifty some key shots in the trailers look.
And don’t even get me started on Jason Bourne (2016), or even Mile 22 (2018). Three years later, the sting of the latter’s unflinching audacity to present Iko Uwais with some of the worst cinematography and editing choices ever implemented for the performance caliber of the star of The Raid and The Raid 2 still irks me to this day.
Hollywood criticisms notwithstanding, none of this is to say that Yen’s resumè has been perfect. One look at the bungled, shoe-horned back-to-back production of Iceman and its haphazard sequel is enough to understand that even big action stars sometimes have their stumbles. Nevertheless, you have to give it to Yen when he’s at his best – even more saliently when he has the right stunt and action team by his side, namely the aforementioned Tanigaki, as well as Huen Chiu Ku (Kill Bill: Vol. 1, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Chris Collins (Ip Man 4, Unleashed, S.P.L.: Paradox), and Kang Yu (Chasing the Dragon, Special ID, Dragon Tiger Gate) – each lending their own wealth of knowledge to the grand action design and stunt coordination in Raging Fire, in accordance with Chan’s longstanding experience.
There’s one stumble that stood out to me during the film, and it deals largely with Tam’s character as Cheung is brought in for questioning. It’s a scene that definitely feels like it should have stood on its own, enough to be allowed to move the film forward without the cartoonish persuasions of a character who would have otherwise been more annoying were it not for the film’s mostly sturdy writing. Centrally, it’s comprised of a formal, albeit solemn moment between Yam and Yen, and for that matter, it was plenty to carry over to the next scene and help bring the story closer to its finish.
In the time that followed Chan’s untimely passing last August, it was Tanigaki who was tasked with post-production on Raging Fire. Having worked with Yen on numerous movies, including as recently as last year’s spirited Sammo Hung homage, Enter The Fat Dragon, and as action coordinator on Big Brother, it was safe to say then, just as it is now, that the job of putting the finishing touches on Chan’s final film fell in good hands. Two of the best hands, even. The result, almost a year later, is a bonafide crowdpleaser for martial arts action fans worldwide. To add, for Chan in his post-obit return to the New York Asian Film Festival since the Centerpiece screening of his 2011 Andy Lau headliner, Shaolin, Raging Fire bodes as a fitting and final, high-note on-screen bow, in honor of an assiduous and talented film director who took it to the limit one last time, paying it forward accordingly.
Raging Fire is screening this month for the 20th New York Asian Film Festival, in addition to its pending Canadian Premiere for the 25th Fantasia International Film Festival. Well Go USA will release the film theatrically in North America beginning August 13.