Nearly three decades after making his international breakthrough with “City on Fire” — the 1987 cult-fave cops-and-robbers opus that Quentin Tarantino brazenly referenced in “Reservoir Dogs” — Hong Kong auteur Ringo Lam returns to his roots with “Sky on Fire,” a similarly titled non-sequel that, at its infrequent best, plays like a highlight reel culled from the greatest hits of a bygone era. Specifically, this new film recalls that brief but shining heyday when Lam, John Woo, Tsui Hark, and other Hong Kong directors more or less remade action cinema as an exhilarating mashup of operatic passions, automatic weapons, and blow-’em-up, smack-’em-down mayhem.
Unfortunately, that isn’t quite the same thing as being a terrific movie, or even a very good one, that stands on its own merits. Truth to tell, the first half of “Sky on Fire” is more confusing than exciting, as Lam, working from his own screenplay, demands that his audience make sense of the shifting allegiances and hazy backstories in a plot that has something to do with a truck driver’s obsessive quest to find a cure for his cancer-stricken half-sister, and something else to do with amoral agents of a Big Pharma company that is about to market a new wonder drug.
Daniel Wu looms large throughout the proceedings as Chong Tin-Po, security chief at the skyscraper headquarters of Sky One, the aforementioned Big Pharma outfit. (Think of it as the sort of role that used to provide steady employment for Chow Yun-Fat.) Chong is a tough-minded professional who’s more than a little soft-hearted when it comes Gao Yu (Zhang Jingchu), a brilliant but sickly medical researcher. Unfortunately, she is inconveniently married to Chong’s boss, Tong Wing-cheung (Fan Guangyao), a Sky One exec who is about to make a killing with a cancer cure derived from the work of his mentor, a scientist who “accidentally” perished years ago.
Complications arise and loyalties are tested after the late scientist’s son (Zhang Ruoyun) and the trucker (Joseph Chang) with the sick half-sister (Amber Kuo) join forces to swipe the “ex-stem cells” that are the main ingredient in the cancer cure. When Chong isn’t sufficiently trigger-happy for Tong’s taste, the Sky One exec calls in a squad of retrieval specialists who have few qualms about killing conspirators, domesticated animals, and/or unlucky passers-by who get in their way. One thing leads to another, and the movie eventually makes good on the promise of its title with a third act that is equal parts “Mission: Impossible” and “The Towering Inferno,” only with less than persuasive CG effects.
Somewhere around the midpoint, during a masterfully shot and edited footrace through an apartment building and across rooftops, “Sky on Fire” finally starts to accelerate. From that point on, there are shootouts, car crashes, fistfights, and fatal falls galore, along with a grisly murder by fire that might have been even more shocking with better special effects. And, of course, since this is a retro Hong Kong action movie, there are more than a few interludes where characters wax sentimental about the past or pending loss of loved ones, and question whether fate or choice guides their destinies.
There’s really nothing new here. Still, it’s hard to deny the sporadically satisfying nostalgic appeal of this dash down memory lane.