Corruption and rage burn deep in the heart of Hong Kong’s cops in agitated and energetic actioner “Fire of Conscience.” With this effort, helmer Dante Lam and regular scripter Jack Ng bounce back from their disappointing “The Sniper” (2009), returning to the high-octane form of 2008’s “Beast Stalker.” Attending to minor characters with the same attention he grants his moody leads, Leon Lai and Richie Jen, Lam ensures that every moment matters in this powerful thriller. Set for an April 10 Hong Kong release, “Fire” should garner boffo biz. Other Asian territories will follow suit; elsewhere, cult ancillary beckons.
An economical time-lapse opening establishes Manfred (Lai, bearded and intense) as a despairing cop on the skids. Sequence is followed by a flamboyant, black-and-white, CG-heavy setpiece depicting several interconnected crime scenes — a public shootout, the death of a prostitute and the theft of a cell phone containing vital information — in a porous freeze-frame that the camera explores in great detail. After a quick swish pan, the film explodes into saturated color as clean-cut but corrupt narcotics cop Kee (Jen, excellent) watches one of his cohorts die while trying to retrieve the stolen phone.
Fate throws the calm Kee and idealistic but brutal Manfred together; Manfred believes they’re both on the same side, despite their differences in temperament and operating style. Meanwhile, Kee’s criminal underlings are blackmailing a mainland Chinese working stiff (Wang Baoqiang) into volunteering his explosives expertise.
The threads start to intersect when Manfred and his team (Michelle Ye, Liu Kai-chi) pursue a suspect to a restaurant where a drug deal is going down. The ensuing battle, which ranks among even John Woo’s best setpieces, cranks up the adrenaline, which the pic sustains all the way to an exhilarating if excessive climax. Despite its rapid pace, “Fire of Conscience” never jettisons logic for cheap thrills; Lam adroitly handles Ng’s complex script, ensuring that each accelerating development is clear and transparent.
Subplots delineating how women impact the careers and ethics of the male characters act as a smart counterpoint to the narrative’s more frenetic scenes. Pic’s only serious misstep is an audacious addition to the finale, clearly conceived to trump Chow Yun-fat’s armed babysitting in Woo’s “Hard-Boiled.”
Perfs are strong across the board. Lai’s beatnik-ish cop, driven by a brutish desire for justice and retribution, is an emotional inferno; in contrast, Jen’s cool cucumber Kee is a refined crook under pressure.
Lensing by Charlie Lam and Tse Chung-to is vibrant and varied, even revitalizing the cliche of wobblecam as an edgy device. Action, well choreographed by Chin Ka-lok, usually takes place on the open streets of Hong Kong and creates a strong impression of a city as mired in crime as Jen’s character is.
Henry Lai’s powerful score is given extra oomph by Nip Kei-wing’s well-deployed sound design.