Two words are unavoidable when discussing Ringo Lam's City on fire, the first one is "gritty". I don't think a review of this movie has ever been written without the use of the word gritty somewhere within it, there's no doubt about it, it's a gritty film. The second word is "Tarantino", it's quite obvious that QT "borrowed" the end of City on fire and expanded it into his Resevoir Dogs, this has had the unfortunate effect of colouring the view of both films to some degree. The only positive from the whole homage/rip off argument is that many more cinema fans have been exposed to Lam's film than would have been otherwise.
Ko Chow (Chow Yun Fat) is an undercover cop suffering from terrible guilt, after his last job, where his betrayal of a criminal friend in the line of duty resulted in his death. Chow is desperate to escape the incredibly intense lifestyle of an undercover officer but is pressured by his boss into taking another job before he can quit. His task to begin with is to sell weapons to a well drilled gang of jewellery thieves led by the experienced Tiger (Danny Lee). As the investigation goes on, Chow is manipulated by his superiors, until he's forced into being part of the gang. Torn away from his real life he forms a bond with Tiger, the very man he is supposed to bring down.
Another example of Hong Kong cinema's love/hate relationship with the Hong Kong police force, as all the cops with the exception of Chow are portrayed as back biting, pedantic, selfish and worse, to the extent that Chow is tortured by his own colleagues. Whereas the relationships between the robbers, and Chow and Tiger in particular are built on loyalty and respect. The characters on both sides are drawn quite loosely but are given more depth than usual for this kind of film. Chow's character is particularly well developed and we are given insight into not only the pressures of the job, but the serious toll the pressure takes on his private life, as he tries to marry his girlfriend played by Carrie Ng. Chow Yun Fat is superb in every facet of his performance, from the fear of being discovered as a cop to trying to keep up his faltering attempts at a normal life. Chow deservedly won the best actor award at the Hong Kong film awards for City on fire, it's possibly one of the best from his glittering career. Solid support comes from Danny Lee and the pair preview the excellent chemistry they would repeat later on in John Woo's The Killer. The supporting cast are all good, with a brief role for Elvis Tsui as an undercover cop and an early appearance from Roy Cheung, playing a cop in the style of one of his many great bad guys.
Lam's story and direction are typically lean, with excellent use of camera placement and angles alongside superb location work in some of Hong Kong's busiest areas. Much of this shooting must have been done guerilla style and must have been extremely tricky to achieve for cinematographer Andrew Lau, the effort was extremely worthwhile as it gives the film an almost documentary style realism at times. Teddy Robin provides an excellent score, creating excitement for the action sequences and plenty of sombre atmosphere and tension in the film's quieter moments. Speaking of action, although not strictly an action film, what there is in City on fire is handled superbly with a couple of excellent robbery scenes and a fantastic on foot chase between Chow and the cops on his tail that's especially memorable.
Covering themes of loyalty and honour familiar to Hong Kong cinema and it's fans, the undercover cop sub-genre is one that is well mined, I'm going to stick my neck out and suggest City on fire is the best example of it. Lam's film creates a truly claustrophobic environment for Ko Chow, the feeling of the walls closing in on him (and the viewer) is palpable. It's testament to Chow Yun Fat's charisma and ability, just how much sympathy and anger the situation he's put in by his petty minded superior officers can generate. Superbly made in every area, City on fire is absolute must see cinema, plus did I mention it's gritty?
Blu ray review
Kam and Ronson's blu ray of City on fire is a definite upgrade from any previous dvd release, how much of an upgrade will depend on which dvd you have. Compared to my Universe HK dvd the difference is night and day, however, it's significantly less so compared to the HKL disc. The problem is the source material, like many HK films of this vintage, is very soft to begin with so the gain in resolution doesn't add much in the way of detail. I can't imagine the film will ever look any better than this release, as I said if you have the HKL disc the difference may not be enough. The audio is vastly superior to the dvd releases with the exception of the added foley effects, which while not as intrusive as on some titles, do stand out particularly in fight scenes. Teddy Robin's score sounds superb though on the Dolby TrueHD track. Is it worth the money? I guess it depends how much you can pick it up for, what version you already have and of course, how much you like the film. For me I think it's worth it, just.