City on Fire / Lung Foo Fung Wan (dir. Ringo Lam, 1987) – Ko Chow goes on his last mission as an undercover, but rouses the suspicion the gang he infiltrated.
Just one year after John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, the late Ringo Lam made his own cinematic mark with the release of City on Fire. His film is now recognised for its major influence on Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, which infamously pilfered its classic heist set-up and the iconic stand-off.
After finally seeing the alleged original, I am convinced that the accusations are completely unfounded and made by mad men who had seen neither. Dwelling on the similarities between shots is not merely a reductive call. It also does disservice to both films, each with its own distinctive voice to offer.
Despite a similar start point, Tarantino’s film goes in a different direction and largely focuses on the robbery’s aftermath. The cat-and-mouse game is essentially a mystery surrounding the undercover’s identity, taking place with his trademark razor wit and a large cast of colourful characters, not just in name.
In contrast to Tarantino’s ensemble film, City on Fire takes a more dramatic route that dives deeper into the personal lives of each of his characters. It also allows the bullet festival’s lead-up to play out in great detail.
Lam also has a more intimate story to tell, centring on one man Ko Chow (Chow Yun-fat) caught between his loyalties to the police he works for and the gang that had placed trust in him. The matter is complicated by his blood ties to Inspector Lau (Sun Yueh), desperate to get his nephew out of trouble.
Ko Chow also sympathises for the men he was supposed to investigate, facing a difficult moral struggle he faces that is in every way, evocative. Planning to resign from the police force, he wants out of his double life. He does not just fear being called out as an undercover cop. He fears being unable to choose which side to stand on, a dilemma he discovers when he is forced to infiltrate a dangerous heist one last time.
The blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb. Similar layered themes continue to permeate Hong Kong’s modern action landscape, in films like Election and Shinjuku Incident, which are all the better for it. There is no doubt of the large impact that City on Fire left on cinema even after all these years, an inimitable legacy that cannot be erased.
Gritty action, gang violence and honour among thieves; City on Fire retains its massive influence in cinema despite decades past.