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PopGap #26: City on Fire (1987)

PopGap #26: City on Fire (1987)

Written by dorrk
13 March 2017

Police has to catch thief.

Ringo Lam's police thriller City on Fire (1987) is maybe best-known in the U.S. for its influence on Quentin Tarantino's debut film Reservoir Dogs, but while Tarantino's movie was notable for its ensemble of quirky criminals, City on Fire is all about one man: Chow Yun-Fat. In 1986, Chow became a star in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, and a year later both City on Fire and A Better Tomorrow II cemented his status as the new face of the "heroic bloodshed" genre, which arguably reached its peak with two more Woo/Chow collaborations, The Killer (1989) and Hard Boiled (1992). Incredibly, Chow appeared in 22 movies during that breakthrough two-year period, which might explain the utterly chaotic blender of cop and crime movie cliches that makes even the best of them seem only somewhat coherent and rarely plausible. However, Chow's unique starpower always seems to not only transcend but elevate the often dubious material.

In City on Fire, Chow stars as a policeman haunted by a past undercover assignment, during which the bond he formed with the criminals confused his mission. Desperate to retire and marry his nightmare of a girlfriend (Carrie Ng), Chow is also wanted for arrest by Internal Affairs; however, his Inspector uncle (Sun Yueh) assigns him to one last job infiltrating a ring a of jewel thieves. Chow runs back and forth across Hong Kong, to meet-ups and heists with his new gang, away from adversarial police who don't care about his undercover status, and to wherever his fiancee is waiting for him. City on Fire is, at its core — like a lot from the heroic bloodshed genre — a silly movie acting like a desperately serious one (although not to the extent of the hysterically absurd A Better Tomorrow 2). One of Chow's most impressive traits as an actor is his eagerness to dive headfirst into the wild tonal rollercoaster of Hong Kong action movies — with their manic depressive swings from bloody violence, to drippy sentimentality and obligatory awful relationship comedy — while never acting above the material or getting pulled down into its mire; he indulges every moment with ineffable sincerity, no matter how ridiculous or undeveloped, and always comes out at the end with 100% integrity. It's hard to believe than any of his movies from this era would have worked without him, and he's the one thing that elevates City on Fire from ordinary to notable.

City on Fire (1987) was brought to my Potluck Film Fest by Tory Kluender, who can be found on Flickchart under the username ToryK. He ranks it on his Flickchart at #291 / 3609 (92%) and as his 6th favorite of 16 Chow Yun-Fat moviesOn my chart, City on Fire (1987) ranked at #1748 (53%), which puts it at 4th out of the six Chow Yun-Fat movies I've seen.

PopGap #26: City on Fire (1987)

Trailer for City on Fire (1987)