TSBH: Tiger on the Beat (Lau Kar-leung, 1988)

As an obvious send-up of its Western action-comedy predecessors, Tiger on the Beat is legendary Shaw Brothers staple Lau Kar-leung’s head-scratching departure from traditional martial arts fare. Paired with hotheaded rookie Michael Tso (Conan Lee), notorious slacker and womanizer Sergeant Francis Li (Chow Yun-Fat) is tasked with taking down a heroin trafficking ring. Trailing their only available lead in the form of a key player’s sister, criminal involvement escalates as the mismatched duo comically overcomes explosively tone-deaf adversity on the path toward justice.

Billed as an HK equivalent to Lethal Weapon, this descriptor isn’t far off as the film strays from typically redundant heroic bloodshed fare. It forgoes the themes perpetuated throughout the likes of Lam and Woo’s features for an agreeably lighter take on action formula with an emphasis on chemistry between leads. While mostly effective, there’s no denying the aforementioned tonal inconsistency plaguing alternating scenes of general wackiness and extreme violence. Whether it’s Chow Yun-Fat “interrogating” the key players’ lone female link to the criminal underworld or the latter-act chainsaw battle crescendo, it’s this brand of insanity that instills Tiger on the Beat with enough of an engaging personality.

Well-intentioned as it is, Lau Kar-leung’s emulative employment of familiar Western tropes is startlingly uneven as the bickering duo nears resolution. The humor, while effective, is easily overshadowed by events comparable to the female lead being beaten within an inch of her life by a corn starch-wielding Chow Yun-Fat. You’ll have to see the film to gather relevant context of course, but Lau’s priorities become a bit muddied leading up to a during the expected blowout characteristic of the subgenre, of which comes complete with some of the more inventive pump shotgun use I’ve seen.


TSBH: Prison on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1987)

Serving three years in prison for an unfortunate manslaughter beef, mild-mannered Yiu (Tony Leung Ka-fai) must part with his loving parents and unassuming bride-to-be and harden up should he intend to survive in the slammer. Ill-equipped by way of demeanor, the going gets rough early on and frequently until the arrival of Ching (Chow Yun-Fat) – a wisecracking hothead that reluctantly takes Yiu under his wing. As their bond strengthens amid continued adversity, the contributed tension a la prison officials and violent fellow inmates transforms their established co-dependence into a mortal necessity.

In emulating its predecessor’s effective slow burn, Prison on Fire is a film steeped largely in arbitrary exposition, intermittent conflict and a latter act blowup that remains more gratifying than not. All of the standard prison drama tropes remain front-and-center – amenity smuggling, brutish two-faced gang members, oppressive authoritarian guards – yet they don’t render the proceedings forgettable. This is largely due to the breezily sustained charisma of and chemistry between the film’s leads, their interplay competently segueing into a palpably meaningful relationship between the two.

With Ching remaining the unfailingly naive Yiu’s sole lifeline, the latter’s ignorance toward conformity isn’t so much grating as it is an effectively hopeful impetus. His resolve crumbles as you’d expect it would, as does Ching’s, and it’s with these moments that the film largely becomes one of perseverance for the sake of the ones you love on the outside. Character moments aside, Prison on Fire thrives mostly in the vein of what Lam does best in the vein of the increasingly riotous. From an initial incident in the yard to the climactic no-holds-barred barracks blowout, the film’s outwardly familiar theme of brotherhood laces these moments with an extra dimension that makes you hope Yiu and Ching will pull through prior to a predictably bittersweet conclusion.

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.

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.

To Shed Blood, Heroically: A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)

Derived from a term coined in the late 1980s, “heroic bloodshed” refers to the revisionary period of Hong Kong action cinema that steeped itself fervently in cop and crook subjectivity, themes and rampant gun play instead of more traditional wuxia fare. Perpetuated and improved upon by John Woo and his contemporaries, this agreeably voluminous body of work has finally graduated from my periphery to front-and-center in my film viewing endeavors. From the omnipresent Chow Yun-Fat to expertly choreographed “bullet ballets,” I begin my journey with the film that’s considered a forefather of this particular movement, John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow.

As far as narrative convention goes, A Better Tomorrow comfortably fits the bill as it familiarly pits brothers on opposing sides of the law against one another; to varying degrees of intermittent gun play, of course. Honing in on the wake created by a criminal struggling to break the shackles of gangster-dom following a three-year prison stint, the film wears its earnest simplicity on its sleeve as said brothers and down-on-his-luck lackey Mark (Chow Yun-Fat) concisely strut their stuff.

Undying fraternal devotion comes into play regarding the gang as a whole, the ensuing familial dynamics played fast and loose in between Woo-heavy action sequences that flaunt the director’s trademarks in a famously oppressive manor. Gratuitous slow mo lends itself wonderfully to the shootouts throughout – sequences presented in a way that perfectly accentuates the film’s primary attributes. Make no mistake though, A Better Tomorrow‘s emotional underbelly isn’t entirely tacked on for substance’s sake as Ho’s (Lung Ti) desire to go straight proves insurmountable. While not substantially affecting, conflictual engagement remains intact throughout his worsening transition from mere ex-con to a man desperate to reconcile with estranged brother and police inspector, Kit (Leslie Cheung).

Throw in a side impetus in the form of Mark pining for redemption following his own fall from grace and you have yourself a solidly crafted HK actioner. Effectively employing the strengths of both Woo and the subgenre it ascribes to, A Better Tomorrow is an obvious precursor to the auteur’s later and supposedly greater works. Although trite by way of core narrative, things are still kept interesting enough in between the clinking and clanking of bullet casings tumbling almost endlessly into the puddles of blood beneath our protagonists’ feet.