Over the past decade, the New York Asian Film Festival has served as ground zero for an incredible array of Eastern Asian and Southeast Asian titles. So it is no small thing that Raging Fire, the final film by director Benny Chan before his death last year, recently had its international premiere as the Centerpiece Presentation of the 2020 NYAFF. This is the perfect venue to introduce American audiences to Donnie Yen’s latest film, a stylish actioner that serves as a four-star throwback to the big-budget thrillers of yesterday.
Cheung Sung-pong (Yen) is a man of honor, unwilling to bend to the demands of an increasingly corrupt police bureaucracy. But when ex-cop Yau Kong-ngo (Tse) is released from prison – a prison Sung-pong put him in with a reluctant piece of testimony – the two men find themselves locked into a series of deadly showdowns within the Hong Kong underground. Kong-ngo is hell-bent on getting revenge against the men who wronged him; if Sung-pong stands any chance of avenging the colleagues his ex-friend has killed, then he might need to get his hands a little dirty in the process.
If you spend time watching Chinese police thrillers – or American police thrillers, for that matter – you might step into Raging Fire expecting a heavy dose of state-sanctioned esprit de corps. But for his final feature, Chan has crafted a procedural whose notions of justice and duty are deliciously frayed. Raging Fire follows in the tradition of great Nineties crime thrillers, where the integrity of our hero is protected as much by circumstance as his strength of character. As much as the film may try to counteract its moral opacity with a few brutal acts of violence or the occasional speech about the brotherhood of blue, this is a film set in a system that is clearly failing.
This ambiguity is crucial to the film’s success. Raging Fire bears a striking resemblance to Michael Mann’s Heat; from the humanizing of its villain to its climactic shoot-out across the streets of an urban intersection, Chan has crafted an actioner that exploits the might-makes-right mentality of both cops and criminals. With fights by respected stunt coordinator Kenji Tanigaki (Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins) and several stand-out set pieces – including a brawl in a church as good as anything you’ll see in a movie this year – Raging Fire also offers top-tier violence to go with its rock-solid characterizations.
Nothing about Raging Fire is new – this is a throwback in every sense of the word. The relationship between both Sung-pong and Kong-ngo captures the through-the-looking-glass schtick found in so many Nineties action movies, where our hero would face off against a disgruntled soldier or rogue CIA operative. But in a world where so many big-budget action movies are either sanitized or stylized to the point of abstraction, Raging Fire reminds us that a little bit of real-world chaos can still go a long way. If you can sit through the occasional sermon about the role of police in modern society, you’ll find yourself in the lap of true action greatness.
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