Tuesday, March 23, 2010

[HKIFF 2010 Review] Fire of Conscience (火龙 / For Long) (World Premiere)

Officer Down

Dante Lam is fast cementing his position in the Hong Kong film industry as one of the go-to directors for an action cop-thriller, with his previous films The Sniper and Beast Stalker, in collaboration with writer Ng Wai Lun doing just that, not to the penchant of tackling characters with plenty of emotional baggage straddling in between the grey moral areas, allowing the actors portraying them to be noticed for their dramatic chops.

The film opens with plenty of money shots for its opening montage, the first being a special effects laden time lapse shot of Leon Lai's Sergeant Manfred slowly growing older and looking more haggard, no thanks to his donning yet another unkempt bearded look. Then there's a Watchmen opening credits inspired series of black and white stills that freeze frames some really insane action moments which tell a little bit about the back-stories that we're soon going to get entrenched in as the narrative moves forward, thus while they don't make much sense now, they will get explained in due course, just to keep your suspense piqued.

As mentioned, characters with deep emotional baggage are probably going to be a staple in Dante Lam's films, and Sergeant Manfred is on the verge of throwing away his 27 years of veteran service by employing an unorthodox, hair shaving quirk after apprehending any pickpocket on the streets, bringing them to an eyewitness to his wife's murder. This of course leads to complaints about his heavy-handedness, and investigations by internal affairs of a needless, violent cop on the force, but it doesn't faze him as he goes on a determined search of his wife's killer.

Richie Jen on the other hand, as Inspector Kee, may look the gentleman, but he too has plenty of cards kept under his sleeve, coming from the Narcotics Bureau and wanting to work at the Crimes Unit. He takes to Sergeant Manfred on a typical night on duty where they both share similar, unflattering views of their superiors and top brass and how disconnected they can be when sitting atop the ivory tower detached from the men and happenings on the ground, and both men soon form a working partnership as they collaborate into the investigations of a hooker, where signs initially point to one of Manfred's subordinates (Liu Kai Chi).

Action wise, there are a number of huge gun battles here that will max out the sound system of the cinema, and Lam crafts plenty of chase sequences, gun play and moments enough that will make the action junkie in you go wild given the unflinching, graphic violence, especially when Lai's Manfred goes for broke. A critical battle scene takes place in a teahouse, and I think as ubiquitous a teahouse can get in Hong Kong, nothing beats having a standoff and a shootout in an HK action flick, this one upping the ante with massive grenade explosions, body count and a narrative moment which will make you go a baffling “hmm...” since it did stick out like a sore thumb, but fret not as all's set to be explained soon enough. The only letdown I had, which no thanks to promotional stills and the trailer is that of having Manfred and his team race down the busy streets on foot and carrying some heavy firepower, something set up to look strikingly similar to Michael Mann's Heat, but what an anti-climax it had turned out to be.

As with all testosterone charged action films, most of the female characters were completely relegated to nothing more than token support roles in order to provide that fuel for the guys' relentless drive to do what they have set out to, or is the source of their pain and probable bad judgement calls, save for Michelle Ye's May who plays that tough cookie policewoman who has this insatiable crush for Manfred, but gets to do most of his administrative dirty work. Vivian Hsu though goes back to being a flower vase as Kee's girlfriend Ellen, whom we learn more through other people's conversation about her inglorious past, and Vanessa Yeung an even smaller role as Manfred's wife whom we'll see in brief flashbacks.

Sure the storyline does involve yet another mole from within the force who's gone down the wrong path given and causing even more personal turmoil, but it is exactly how each character deals with their problems in opting for the easy way out, and the action sequences here that makes this an above average thriller. I would like it a lot more if not for that really contrived moment of having someone give birth in the middle of plenty of hullabaloo.

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