Donnie Yen can defy gravity, can make us delight in his near-60-year-old body performing incredible leaps and kicks, can sell copious amounts of cheese with a silly grin or a hard stare. But he’s not a miracle worker. When he’s given material like Raging Fire, a run-of-the-mill cop-and-robber action/drama that’s as generic as its title, he’s just as susceptible to disappearing beneath mediocrity as any other performer. Despite a few moments of heightened bliss that remind us what kind of talent it has in front of the camera (and the operatic possibilities of Hong Kong action), Raging Fire’s dull discussion of policing never lights a fire.
The last film written and directed by Benny Chan, who tragically died of cancer between production and post-production, Raging Fire’s plot is pretty simple. It’s another case of dueling morals, this time between Yen’s hardline inspector Cheung Sung-pong and his ex-protege Yau Kong-ngo (Nicholas Tse), who turned criminal after a stint in prison when his police brutality turned lethal. Brotherhood, lines in the sand and collateral damage: Those constants of police stories (not limited to that of New Police Story, perhaps Chan’s best-known work) all turn up here as Cheung investigates a deadly heist undertaken by someone that had to have known insider information.
The two archetypes—Tse’s villain unable to cut loose even with dual butterfly knives; Yen’s hero so thin as to almost disappear behind his extendable baton—clash in a few different setpieces as the film slowly rolls out its backstory through long flashbacks. Neither present nor past provide much drama for the cast to dig into, but the film still has a few inspired moments of action that incorporate over-the-top acts of physical prowess into otherwise standard car chases or fistfights. When Yen leaps from his speeding van, grabs a child from its path, then leaps backwards atop the crashing car—well, it’s just as thrilling as the final confrontation between its good cop and bad ex-cop. The problem is that, of the film’s two hours, those are some of the only entertaining moments.
The rest is a slog of repetitive and trope-ridden scenes in courtrooms and police stations (and, once, in a kind of police courtroom), where actors sit around and talk about facile ideas everyone in the world should be tired of. Raging Fire is less interested in moral shades of grey than it is in pretending that the omnipresent black—Should cops beat the hell out of people to get answers? Is it bad for the police to be paid off?—is even close to the white. You just want everyone to shut up and get into a car chase or start blasting with a shotgun, but even when the film acquiesces, those spurts of energy are less high-octane than regular unleaded. While the stereotypical morality play and stock characters are one thing, the lack of spectacle holding it all together undermines whatever expectations we might have.
A stormed mall, invaded drug lair and bomb-threat stand-off all fail to resonate with the power of their action-packed implications just as the two groups—of ex-cop gangsters and current cops—fail to be much more than ancillary entourages of warm bodies for the film’s figureheads. The action is shot with just enough realism to read as familiar but not gritty, while the most boring elements of the plot (an In Memoriam montage of a slain character composed of scenes we watched not ten minutes beforehand; Cheung futzing around with his pregnant wife [Qin Lan]) dance around with unnecessary flair. It luxuriates when it should cut to the chase and snips any excitement off short.
Raging Fire is a classic case study of “How much are you willing to put up with for a minute or two of unique action?” Plenty of entries in the genre surely fit this bill, and Raging Fire surely hits right in the middle of them all. Yen and Tse are still devoted and kinetic performers, as the film’s final hand-to-hand fight proves. Chan constructs a few key moments of wince-inducing choreography and compelling images (mostly through use of costuming and props, including some amusing masks and a delightfully retro explosive neck shackle) that may well be worth the price of entry for some die-hard action junkies. But for the rest of us, the thrown-together cliché will fizzle—leaving us neither raging, nor fired up.
Director: Benny Chan
Writers: Benny Chan
Stars: Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Qin Lan
Release Date: August 13, 2021
Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.
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