Laying waste to everything with blaring 3D effects, “Firestorm” plays more like a disaster movie than a crime saga, given its risibly implausible story of a policeman fighting mainland Chinese robbers on the rampage in Hong Kong. Helmer-scribe Alan Yuen makes every scene go bang and boom, burying his potentially compelling subject — a law enforcer’s quandary when justice crumbles under brute force — under so much CGI rubble. This being the most extravagant (though not the most technically polished) Chinese 3D blockbuster in recent release, pic boasts whiz-bang B.O. in China and currently holds top spot in Hong Kong cinemas.
Although Yuen has helmed a B-grade romance (1994’s “Touches of Love”) and shares writing-directing credits with Sylvia Chang on the cyber-love story “Princess D” (2002), he is best known for scripting Benny Chan’s blockbusters, including “New Police Story” (2004), “Rob-B-Hood” (2006) and “Shaolin” (2010). While these hits succeeded by prioritizing action and spectacle over plot and character, Yuen’s shortcomings as a screenwriter are apparent in “Firestorm,” with its uneven pacing and pedestrian storytelling. Still, the director has unmistakably absorbed some of Chan’s skill at handling large-scaled productions, a slightly messy look in the large crowd scenes notwithstanding.
Yuen’s ambition is evident in his decision to set the pic’s biggest shootouts on Hong Kong’s congested streets. The first and most rousing of these depicts the robbery of an armored vehicle, masterminded by mainland racketeer Cao Nan (Hu Jun, smugly menacing). Responding to a tipoff by a stool pigeon, senior inspector Lui (Andy Lau) has assembled his veteran team to bust these crooks.
The clash between the two sides — a propulsive, bloody affair made even more cataclysmic by the typhoon hitting the city — is interrupted when a stray car rams into the fray, enabling the key perpetrators to flee. The driver, Bong (Lam Ka-tung), who’s fresh out of jail, happens to be Lui’s high-school classmate. In one of the film’s few subtle moments, the two old friends have a catch-up chat, rife with innuendo that leaves no doubt that Bong is involved in the heist.
As Lui is bent on putting Cao behind bars, the latter simply ups his game. A police raid on his gang’s hideout erupts in a crossfire of “Diehard” proportions, and some audiences may wonder if the scene is set in a Hong Kong residential block or a Chechnyan war zone. That’s just a warm-up for the protracted grand finale, during which the robbers, led by loose-cannon ex-con Paco (Ray Lui, like a manic jester), try to loot another armored vehicle, only they behave more like suicide bombers.
For all the novelty of seeing Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong’s swanky downtown, turn into a bomb site, none of the crash-bang gunfights and car explosions live up to the tension and surprise of the opening highway sequence, while some of the more contrived developments are derivative of scenes in the Korean tsunami-disaster film “Haeundae.” Also: Armed to the teeth as they are, doesn’t it cost them more to buy all that artillery than what they’re stealing?
If greater care had been taken with the intertwined character arcs of Lui and Bong, it might have provided enough dramatic substance to offset the sensory overload. Lui’s despair is initially affecting, as he watches Cao deviously maneuver his way around the law while his henchmen massacre innocents in cold-blooded fashion. However, Lui’s climactic switcheroo lacks psychological buildup, relying instead on a soapy subplot involving his retired informant Keung (Philip Keung, operatic) volunteering for “one last job.”
While Lau simply seems to be playing himself so long as Lui is in hero mode, he’s less convincing once his character sheds his ideals. By comparison, Lam turns in an ace perf, playing Bong with rapscallion charm, and suggesting how he fell into a life of crime only because it’s less taxing than making an honest living. He generates sparks with mainland thesp Yao Chen as his feisty and steadfast wife, Bing; despite the corniness of Bong turning over a new leaf for the love of a good woman, his eventual transformation feels authentic and moving.
“Firestorm” harks back to ’90s Hong Kong police actioners, and also tips its cap to “Infernal Affairs” in the way it depicts cops and robbers as each other’s alter egos. But the film most significantly recalls the seminal “Long Arm of the Law” (1984), reflecting the anxieties of Hong Kong citizens whose faith in law and order is shattered by the army-trained criminals pouring across the mainland border. Interestingly, the depiction of PLA-soldier-turned-entrepreneur-crook Cao as a suave planner-leader, more efficient than Hong Kong hothead Paco, suggests an updated notion of Chinese social mobility.
The expense of the 3D effects, courtesy of Taiwan’s Free-D Workshop, is visible in every frame, but the texture of some of the images, especially of flames and flying debris, is surprisingly coarse. Likewise, while the car stunts are fast and furious, action director Chin Ka-lok has done more thoughtful, sophisticated work elsewhere. Other tech credits, such as Peter Kam’s pounding score, Kinson Tsang’s booming sound mix and Chan Chi-ying’s swooping camerawork (much less subtle than Chan’s lensing in “The Bullet Vanishes”), are pro but on-the-nose. The film’s Chinese title means “Windstorm.”