Ko Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) has had just about enough. Enough of his job, and enough of his girlfriend Hung (Carrie Ng), though not necessarily in that order as it is his occupation that is giving him the most grief for he is an undercover cop which is very dangerous work. If the criminal gangs catch you out and realise you are not working for them but against them, they will have no qualms about murdering you, something Chow is painfully aware of, especially after one undercover man is stabbed to death in the street. Can Chow escape this life, rebuild his relationship, and start again, away from this urban hell of double crossings, cunning manipulations and barefaced lies?
Ringo Lam was a director who had already made some progress in the Hong Kong action field, and it was his direction of a Mad Mission entry that prompted its prime mover Karl Maka to fund this lower budget crime drama, thus inspiring Lam's career for the rest of his life, though for many fans he really only had a few films that showed off his ability to their best form. City on Fire, or Lung foo fung wan in its original language, was not the first of the so-called heroic bloodshed movies, and nor was it the highest profile, but it did well enough in its native market to guarantee its helmer would never be wanting for work from those impressed by his handling of character and violence.
It was probably the latter which garnered him attention in the West, as there was one thing Hong Kong movie followers of the nineteen-eighties and nineties liked, and that was bloodshed and brutality; it offered an edge to watching them which was not quite like the violence from Hollywood. Purists would look down their noses at those Western efforts in what would be looked back on as a Golden Age of East Asian thrillers, not least when those Western filmmakers began to pick up on stuff that had been so vivid in the cinema from across the globe, and City on Fire was more prone to that than many others, all thanks to a tyro director from Los Angeles who liked what he saw here.
That man was Quentin Tarantino, and his Reservoir Dogs has become inextricably linked to the Lam movie, so much so that it is practically impossible to discuss City on Fire without mentioning that cult thriller from the other side of the Pacific since Tarantino basically lifted the entire last ten to fifteen minutes of it to provide the ending for Reservoir Dogs, a state of affairs that made him quite a few enemies in the fan community. What the Hong Kong effort did not have was Tarantino's dialogue, and being a quotable film should not be underestimated in lodging it in the cult consciousness: try and find a fan who will happily quote lines from City on Fire and you will be undertaking a tricky task. But all that said, for most of its hour and three quarters running time, the Lam piece was not much to do with what Tarantino was up to.
Sure, that finale was unmistakably a rip-off, or a sample if you wanted to allude to remix and DJ culture, but for the most part Lam had Chow suffering mightily while trying to laugh off that self-same suffering as his natural joie de vivre is hampered by a job that is incredibly downbeat. The star's persona, highly contrasted but thanks to his talent never less than believable, carried this through what was not the most original of plots, and its obsessions with loyalty - should Ko be loyal to his bosses or the criminals who seem to respect him more? - did drag down what could have been a fleet of foot action thriller. There were no amazing fight scenes, and the stunts were whatever they could get away with on their funding, but there was a kinetic energy which propelled the characters to a seemingly inevitable showdown, and that was fairly compelling. Its rough edges surprisingly operated in its favour, and if the sentiment was laid on thick, the rest of it was muscular and deceptively anguished. Also, if Die Hard is a Christmas film, then so is this. Music by Teddy Robin Kwan.