TSBH: City on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1987)

Focusing on undercover cop Ko Chow (Chow Yun-Fat) and his struggle in helping to apprehend a band of violent jewel thieves, the at-first black-and-white City on Fire turns grey as a slow-burning but inevitable bond with ring leader Fu (Danny Lee) is established. Morally conflicted and on the outs with an estranged fiancée, Chow’s predicament begins to harbor unwelcome complexity as an explosive sting operation draws nearer. With already tenuous law enforcement ties thinning further still, what will become of Chow in the face of absolute uncertainty?

Given the pink elephant that is City on Fire‘s influence on Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, the film, needless to say, is a modest triumph given the strength of the latter’s borrowed elements. On its own, City‘s first half is a largely procedural affair meant to set the stage for the more pivotal moments to follow. It systematically brands and maintains key players as Chow’s friends or foes, its only weak link being a questionable emphasis on his duties infringing upon an already tenuous marriage arrangement.

Enter the aforementioned Tarantino parallels. Those familiar with the all-grey conflict dynamic characteristic of undercover cop fare, Fu’s former menace is rendered sterile as his bond with Chow strengthens. A faux-brotherly aura emanates from their later interactions as they confide in one another, affecting Chow’s moral compass in a way that belies his already waning loyalty to a handful of shady law enforcement higher-ups.

Following A Better Tomorrow, City on Fire helped further exemplify heroic bloodshed by way of a revolving door of common characters, thematic tropes and exploitation of a target audience’s excitability. Chow thrives within this niche, hence his uncommonly prolific career as a viable part of several HK auteurs’ bodies of work. Although slow to build, Lam’s ability to switch gears is laudable on account of the film’s wildly entertaining back-end bombast.


To Shed Blood, Heroically is a detailed account of my foray into Hong Kong action cinema with a focus on the rapidly popularized heroic bloodshed subgenre of the late ’80s and early ’90s. Check out my other reviews here.

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