One of the year’s most anticipated films opened this week in a handful of theatres across North America: Hong Kong director Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire. After his promisingly solid return to directing after more than a decade in retirement with last year’s Wild City, hopes were high for the new film, if only because it shares the title formulation of some of his greatest works: City on Fire, School on Fire and the two Prison on Fire films. With Daniel Wu starring in a story of greed and corruption in the medical industry, it promised to be a worthy addition to the career of one of Hong Kong’s most distinguished directors, a man whose bleak tales of institutional collapse provided some of the most viscerally kinetic and apocalyptic visions of the colony in the years between the 1984 Joint Declaration and the 1997 Handover. Instead, it’s a mess, a tangle of artificial images, cliched characters, and random plotting intermittently enlivened by a handful of decent vehicle stunts.
Ringo Lam got his start at the Cinema City studio in the mid-1980s (home at the time as well of Tsui Hark, John Woo and Johnnie To, among other major figures). After directing a series of romantic comedies and the highly successful fourth film in the popular Aces Go Places series, his producers allowed him to pick his next project. The result was City on Fire, in which Chow Yun-fat plays an undercover cop getting in too deep with a gang of jewel thieves. The film was a smash hit, earning Lam a Best Director Hong Kong Film Award and, along with Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, released by Cinema City a mere six months earlier, helping to establish the template of what would become known as the ‘heroic bloodshed’ genre: films about cops and crooks with senses of honor incompatible with the corrupted modern world. While Woo would take this genre in increasingly operatic and grandiose directions, and To would create a series of intricate and cool reformulations of the style in the 21st century, Lam’s heroic bloodshed films are marked by their physical immediacy and apocalyptic sense of doom. In the “On Fire” films, as well as lesser cop dramas like Touch and Go or Wild Search, he adopted the ground-level aesthetic of the Hong Kong New Wave, handheld cameras prowling through overcrowded streets to uncover spasms of grotesque violence, not the carefully choreographed ballets of Woo or the kung fu filmmakers, nor the fanciful hyper-speeds of Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung’s effects-driven wuxias, but the chaos of action caught on the fly, seemingly liable to pop up around any corner. Full Contact and Burning Paradise in Hell capture most fully this sense of the nihilistic unavoidability of random violence, while the “On Fire” films document the collapse of Hong Kong’s institutions: the justice system, the educational system, even the shadow state run by organized crime, and their incompetence and/or impotence in the face of the lunatic present.
In the mid-90s and early 2000s, like Woo and Tsui and Chow, Lam headed to America to try his luck in the Hollywood system. He met with little success, though he developed a good working relationship with Jean-Claude Van Damme. At this time he was also still making films in Asia, including The Suspect in The Philippines with Louis Koo and Simon Yam, The Victim, a ghost story set in Hong Kong with Lau Ching-wan, and Looking for Mister Perfect, a romantic comedy with Shu Qi, Chapman To and Simon Yam set mostly in Malaysia. None of these films were particularly successful, and after completing his third of the omnibus film Triangle (with To and Tsui), Lam retired from filmmaking in order to spend more time with his family. And then, his youngest son having graduated college, he made his comeback last year with Wild City, a fine modern noir about a pair of brothers who get caught up with a woman on the run from a gang of criminals. Featuring a strong performance from Louis Koo in the lead role and showing the old flair for the specificity of Hong Kong locations, as well as creative adaptations of contemporary digital filmmaking to Lam’s favorite action sequence, the car chase, the film seemed to announce that Lam was back and ready to pick up where he’d left off, not just a decade ago, but 20 years earlier, with his last great film, 1997’s Full Alert.
But Sky on Fire is not that film. If anything, the Lam film it most resembles is his worst (at least among the nineteen that I’ve seen), 1995’s The Adventurers, an Andy Lau vehicle shockingly sloppy in its plotting, characterization and the execution of its action sequences (the final crash of the film’s biggest car chase is mysteriously missing from the final cut). Sky on Fire revolves around a medical research institute which has developed a cure for cancer. The institute jealously guards the cure from both prospective patients (a young woman and her brother from the country) and rival scientists (a gang led by the nerdy son of the man who discovered the cure, who was himself murdered five years earlier). The institute is led by the murderer, a fact which is exceedingly obvious to everyone except the characters on-screen, including his wife (the group’s top surviving scientist) and Daniel Wu (the head of security). The plot is a dizzying series of shifting alliances and confrontations, with the maniacal villain sending people to kill the nerdy son, the brother, his wife, and Wu, alone and in various combinations at one time or another, while our heroes take way too long to figure out who the enemy is and what they should do about it.
Of course, poor plotting and generic characterization aren’t enough to break the best action films, and Lam has redeemed similarly weak material before: Wild Search is a tepid rehash of Peter Weir’s Witness, and Touch and Go is one of Sammo Hung’s least funny comedies. But the things that made those films ultimately watchable was Lam’s obsessive attention to locational detail: the differences between urban and rural life in the former, and between the working poor, middle class, and the corrupt wealthy of Hong Kong in the latter, as well as the kinetic power of the action scenes. But Sky on Fire is set in a near-future world of no specific provenance: it might be Hong Kong, it might be any other city in China or East Asia. The primary location is a CGI fabrication, and a particularly flimsy one even by the cartoonish standards of Chinese digital effects: an enormous skyscraper towering phonily above a phony metropolis, creatively called Sky One. The country siblings’ home is just as slapdash a no-place as the palatial mansion of the villain and his wife, both isolated from any kind of real world, islands in a digital ether. The action scenes fare better: Lam remains the greatest director of vehicle stunts in Hong Kong, and he builds on Wild City’s exploitation of the freedom of digital filmmaking, placing his cameras in every possible part of the cars’ frames in order to capture the maximum rush of speed and impact of his collisions. The fist and gunfights are less successful, lacking the over-the-top gruesomeness of Lam’s earlier work or any kind of virtuosic physical displays from the stunt team.
The medical field has been a ripe subject in the last couple of years for Chinese film, and the potential was there for Lam to take on its greed and hypocrisy in the face of human tragedy, but none of that registers here behind the overcomplicated plotting. Maybe he’s just not feeling the rage of School on Fire, when he channelled all the fury of the New Wave into a horrifying hell-scape of the teen movie gone horribly wrong, where institutional failure offered the city’s youth no hope of escape, of a future outside of drug abuse, prostitution, street crime and gang violence. Lam’s “On Fire” films always started with personal tragedies and then explored the various ways the systems we’ve put in place to mitigate the effects of tragedy often actively end up making them worse. But there’s no broadness to the indictment in Sky on Fire: all the villainy can conveniently be ascribed to one bad guy with bad hair and a purple suit. Compared to the bittersweet comic melodrama Go Away, Mr. Tumor (also starring Daniel Wu), the transnational riff on organ donation and collective responsibility in Soi Cheang’s SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, or the offbeat critique of institutional (medical, criminal, constabular) arrogance in Johnnie To’s Three, one can only conclude that Lam simply failed to take advantage of the possibilities offered by his chosen milieu, or at best, just wasn’t interested. All we get is a scattershot sniping at the most weightless personification of greed and the controversial claim that scientists shouldn’t be killing their bosses. Most galling of all from Hong Kong cinema’s greatest doomsayer: the film, despite one harrowing character death and a fiery conclusion that would have killed thousands of people if anything in this world was actual, ends on a note of hope for the future. From any random filmmaker, this movie would be barely worth mentioning. It’s fine, it’s mostly painless, it would immediately depart from the memory. But from Ringo Lam, it’s a crushing disappointment.