Movie Review: Raging Fire (2021)

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One of my all-time favorite movie reactions is from Denzel Washington who was interviewed on a red carpet after he saw Brian De Palma's “Mission Impossible” in 1996. Recounting the film's many cloak-and-dagger reveals where people switch sides often while in pursuit of the all-important NOC List, Washington leveled with the reporter, joking, “I said to my wife, 'am I stupid or was that hard to understand?'” 

I bring this up because just this week, I had a similar reaction to "Raging Fire," the final film of the late great director Benny Chan. After it began, for at least a good twenty minutes, I was in a constant state of confusion. It's not a great feeling. Nobody wants to admit that they have no idea if they're watching a flashback, a jump forward, or if a character who seems like a villain actually is, and in this case, I think my uncertainty was exacerbated by the fact that at least in the screener of the film I was playing, the subtitles were far too small and flew by at the speed of a John Woo bullet ballet. Unsure if this reaction was my issue alone, before I could even pause "Fire" to ask an avid foreign film buff I was watching with if they understood what was going on, they turned to me and said they were finding it almost impossible to keep up.

Until it eventually all came together in a long-overdue burst of exposition, I simply fell back on my love of Hong Kong action movies, which frequently revolve around the duality of a cop and a robber, and how the two characters really are two sides of the exact same coin, “Infernal Affairs,” “City on Fire,” or “Hard Boiled” style. And luckily, that really helped me out in "Raging Fire," which star Donnie Yen readily admits does go right for that old beloved trope of cops and robbers that film fans have cherished since the days of the western in the west and/or samurai tales in the east. 

In Chan's movie, Yen stars as an obsessive, dedicated police officer who finds himself pursuing his one-time protege on the force, now turned villain played by Nicholas Tse. Feeling like he was hung out to dry just for - in his eyes - following orders, after spending time in prison, Tse reemerges hell-bent on revenge. I'm giving you the succinct version of the set-up here because, as merely a fan of all involved, I went in completely blind and had trouble sorting it out. 

Yet while the film's first act is missing a much-needed sense of flow, which is a recurring problem in Hong Kong movies that often begin with a concept, which only gradually evolves into a script involving these favorite character archetypes, thankfully Benny Chan knows how to direct action. And with his final work, “Raging Fire,” he is there to distract us from the small subtitles and confounding goings-on. 

Only in a Chan film will you have the determined officer played by Donnie Yen tell his squad to go home after a twenty-hour workday and after they leave, he decides to go to an inner-city lair where he fights roughly twenty-five guys at once. It's an insanely wise decision for "Fire," because, I mean, Yen is “Ip Man” after all! Ultra stylish in that glossy Hong Kong way where even the ultraviolence is beautiful, in “Raging Fire,” our two incredibly photogenic leads duke it out in the rain (among other places) and Edmond Fung's cinematography is so vivid and urgent, you can't help but want to reach your hand out to see if you can feel a raindrop hit your skin as well.
Drawn to the movie because, as Tse said, he knew it would be a rare chance to do real old-school, contemporary Hong Kong action that nobody seems to be making anymore due to the danger and expense, “Fire” is filled with rapid shoot-outs, explosions galore, and hand-to-hand combat, including a final fight sequence so intricate that it took nearly two weeks to film. Featuring incredible wirework and death-defying stunts that glide by like Gene Kelly tap-dancing in an MGM musical, in one of the film's most memorable moments, we see a motorcycle vs. car duel play out in traffic with blows landed and thrown through an open window and sunroof that must be seen to be believed.

Proof that sometimes plot (or coherence) is overrated, although, even when you figure it all out, the film's storyline is forgettably threadbare, for action lovers, “Raging Fire,” is a full “turn your brain off and just enjoy the ride” throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema in the late '80s and '90s when films like Benny Chan's “A Moment of Romance” reigned supreme. 

While not as masterful as the Hong Kong classic "Romance," it's still a spectacle of human achievement executed by a film crew who will literally risk being executed to dazzle you. Made with true affection by Yen, Tse, and company for the late director they loved so much, even if the first half-hour of rapid-fire subtitles and scene jumps in “Raging Fire” made me feel – in Washington's words – “stupid,” the entertainment value of Chan's film isn't hard to understand.

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