Ageless action superstar Donnie Yen (“Ip Man”) delivers the goods as an incorruptible and indestructible Hong Kong detective in “Raging Fire,” the final feature directed by the late Benny Chan (Jackie Chan’s “New Police Story”). The familiar story of an honest cop colliding with a former colleague-turned criminal is raised several notches above the ordinary by intricate plot details, a high quota of outstanding set-pieces and excellent performances by Yen and co-star Nicholas Tse as the cold-blooded villain. “Raging Fire” has rocketed to top spot at the Mainland box-office with an $83 million gross in 12 days, and shows every indication of being a hit with action fans when it opens on selected North American screens on August 13.
Chan’s swansong ranks highly in a long and successful feature film career that began with 1990’s crime melodrama classic “A Moment of Romance” and includes hits such as “Gen X Cops” (1999), “Connected” (the 2008 remake of “Cellular”) and “The White Storm” (2013). Diagnosed with cancer while filming “Raging Fire,” Chan passed away during post-production at age 58 on Aug. 23, 2020.
The heyday of Hong Kong police action-thrillers is long gone, and it will be interesting to monitor the genre as political, social and judicial changes continue to take place in the Special Administrative Region. For now, however, “Raging Fire” shows there’s still plenty to keep audiences enthralled and entertained when old school Hong Kong cops-and-crooks drama is executed with the kind of verve Chan exhibits here.
Honor and loyalty are the central themes of a story steeped in the history of Heroic Bloodshed movies made famous by the likes of John Woo, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To in the 1980s and ’90s. Bong (Yen) is a star detective haunted by an incident involving former protégé Ngo (Tse). When a suspect died during an interrogation three years ago, it was Bong’s honest testimony that destroyed Ngo’s career and condemned him to prison. The emotional stakes are heightened by the critical roles of timing and chance. But for a stroke of fortune on that stormy night, the positions Bong and Ngo find themselves in might easily have been reversed.
Since his release from the clink, Ngo has emerged as the snarling leader of a gang comprised of fellow cops sent down for the same crime. Their tactical skill and ruthless professionalism is displayed in a pulsating shootout at a shopping mall that leaves eight cops dead, including Bong’s mentor and best buddy Yiu (Liu Leung Wai).
It’s a given that Bong and Ngo will eventually face each other in a duel to the death, but that doesn’t stop the lead-up being exciting and gripping. On the action front, Bong begins his search for Ngo by taking on an army of knife-wielding hoods in a dockside shantytown. That’s before an amazing chase that begins on crowded sidewalks and ends on a freeway with martial arts combat between Bong and Ngo while the cop is at the wheel of his car and his rival is riding a motorcycle.
Threaded between such breathtaking action sequences is punchy drama shedding light on events that have driven Bong and Ngo to this extreme point in their lives. Much of the crucial detail centers on S.T. Fok (Samuel Kwok), a banking tycoon whose cozy relationship with police brass and importance to Hong Kong’s economy triggers action that would never be taken to protect an ordinary citizen.
While most of the drama serves the film well Chan and co-writers Ryan Ling and Tim Tong rely a little too heavily on flashbacks for exposition and there’s not much substance to Bong’s relationship with his heavily pregnant wife, Ying (Qin Lan). Like many a loyal and supportive spouse in Hong Kong cop dramas of cinematic yore, Ying’s main role is to be kidnapped when plot twists demand.
But these are small stumbles in a film that mostly bristles with energy and provides a terrific stage for Yen to strut his stuff. Whether leaping from balconies onto moving cars, crashing through ceilings of rickety houses or going one-on-one with fists and feet, the 57 year-old (at time of filming) remains a marvel to behold. Full credit also goes to Tse, who’s spent much of the past decade establishing himself as a highly regarded TV chef. Tse cemented his stardom under Chan’s direction in “Gen-X Cops” and is marvelously sinister without succumbing to caricature. Yen and Tse’s climactic “no guns” duel in a church undergoing renovations is truly one for the ages.
The film’s deep connection with classical Hong Kong crime stories is emphasized by the timeless qualities of Yuen Man Fung’s moody widescreen photography, Chou Tak Fu’s production design, Joyce Chan’s costumes and Nicolas Erréra’s original score. Items such as cell phones, trendy modern fashions and up-to-the-minute hairdos are hardly anywhere to be seen as Bong and Ngo battle it out in what seems like the eternal city of Hong Kong cop movies. That feeling lingers through the end credits with a soaring, 1980s-style stadium rock anthem written and performed by Tse. The thumping tune accompanies a moving tribute to Chan that includes the dedication “In Loving Memory of Our Beloved Director, Benny Chan.”