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City On Fire

CITY ON FIRE, a 1987 Hong Kong crime movie by director Ringo Lam, is a vehicle for Chow Yun Fat’s charm. He’s not a God of Pistols, he’s one of these fuckup characters who loves the ladies but does pretty terrible with them. In a restaurant he argues with two different women, one I thought was his wife and the other his mistress, but that later seems to be wrong. Anyway one of them seems to be leaving him for an older guy who owns the restaurant, so he gets into a confrontation and a brawl.

The cops bring him in for what seems like questioning but is actually a meeting. It turns out he’s an undercover cop, or at least he was, but he doesn’t want to do it anymore. His boss pushes him into it, so he gets a couple guns out of a bowling alley locker and sells them to a gang of jewel thieves.

But he doesn’t really have proper backup on this one. He’s got other cops pursuing him all the time, because they don’t know he’s one of them. Man, he doesn’t want them to shoot him like he shot that undercover cop in HARD BOILED, but he can’t reveal himself to them either. His boss won’t do jack shit to help him because that he himself is going behind the back of a younger officer who he suddenly has to answer to. Other cops don’t exactly think it’s a good idea to provide guns to criminals. (It’s like the Operation Fast and Furious thing that our FBI got in trouble for recently, giving guns to Mexican cartels. Whoops.)

But the interesting thing is that despite all the gunplay in Hong Kong movies of this time it was – at least according to this movie – pretty hard to come by guns. He just gets them a few. By American action movie standards he doesn’t seem of much use to them, but they’re happy with him.

Like all undercover movies he gets in too deep with these guys, he earns their respect, he feels bad about betraying them. Always good themes. But alot of the emphasis of the movie is on his relationship with his girlfriend. He seems like a real pain in the ass actually, not just because his police work makes him unavailable as a boyfriend but because when he is with her he’s kind of obnoxious, doing a whole Pepe Le Pew act on her when she’s not in the mood. But because he’s Chow Yun Fat he comes across as a charming rascal instead of a molester or something.

Ladies, if you’re into Chow Yun Fat you should know it shows his ass in one part.

The best scenes are tense chases. He’s picking up the guns at the bowling alley and suddenly sees the guy he’s gonna sell them to. Oh shit – is he found out? Then the cops who are after him are there, he has to take off. He leads them all over the place. My favorite part is when he slides down the middle of an escalator even though it has those bumps they started adding years ago to make sure nobody slides down the middle of their escalator. Ouch.

And the bummer of this scene is that he’s supposed to be meeting his girl at the registry to get their marriage license. It’s kind of an unromantical type situation because she gave him an ultimatum, but he wants to do it and he can’t get there because of this whole arms deal. So he misses meeting her there, which means she’s gonna hook up with the old guy and fly to Canada with him, so now he tries to rush through the undercover arms deal so he can get to the airport on time to stop her. Cop movie meets romantic comedy.

I guess Tequila in HARD BOILED has difficulties with his relationships too, but here he’s playing more of a down to earth loser. He doesn’t make up for it with superheroic gunfighting and baby rescuing powers, and doesn’t play any instruments as far as we know. He does have one really badass moment though when the cops capture him, cuff him, hang him by the wrists on a metal bar and beat him. He’s all bloodied and they’re trying to get information out of him and he says, “I’ll have to call my lawyer.”

Reading that Killer Instinct book reminded me of the ol’ “RESERVOIR DOGS is just a ripoff of CITY ON FIRE” controversy that used to be a big deal back in the day and that some people still cling onto to attack Tarantino. In the book, Jane Hamsher makes some reference to Tarantino “ripping off from Chinese action films.” Later she reprints a letter that Don Murphy wrote to Premiere Magazine in response to an article about Tarantino’s disapproval of NATURAL BORN KILLERS. After defending himself Murphy of course has to throw on a paragraph of childish “gotcha” smears, including, “Biskind should then ask why RESERVOIR DOGS plays like a scene-by-scene plagiarism of a 1987 Hong Kong film called CITY ON FIRE, starring Quentin’s idol, Chow Yun-Fat.”

From what I knew about it I always thought it was stupid because obviously the things everybody loves about RESERVOIR DOGS came from Tarantino: the conversations, the lines everybody quotes, the characters and performances, the music, the whole feel of it. The debate about tipping, Madonna’s dick song, “are you gonna bark all day, little doggy,” “motherfucker looks just like the Thing,” K-Billy Super Sounds of the ’70s. Not to mention specific memorable scenes: the cop in the trunk, dancing around with the ear, “don’t you fuckin die on me!” I figured those weren’t taken from CITY ON FIRE.

It’s true, those things aren’t taken from CITY ON FIRE. As you can tell from my description of the movie the two don’t have the same plot or characters at all. Now that I’ve seen it I understand just how fuckin stupid it was that anybody ever made a big deal about this as more than a bit of trivia. The one similarity of substance, that makes it clear that it’s a deliberate homage, is that it ends with the same emotional dilemma: cornered, wounded criminal feels obligated to admit to his partner that he’s an undercover cop. Without that I could’ve watched the movie and the other similarities (robbery of jewelry store, woman who pulls alarm gets shot, thieves meet at other place, worry that one of them is a cop and point guns at each other) never would’ve occurred to me because they’re all standard heist movie elements, and more than that because they all happen in the last 20 minutes of an hour 45 movie that has nothing to do with RESERVOIR DOGS.

“Plays like scene-for-scene plagiarism” my ass. Had he ever seen either of these movies? Obviously he knew the handful of similarities in a few scenes at the end aren’t “scene-for-scene,” but did he really believe they “play like” they are? Or was he just taking for granted that it was hard to rent Hong Kong movies back then and nobody would try to verify it?

I mean, obviously he’s taking influence from those parts at the end. It’s a little more than just an homage or two. But Tarantino’s unique approach with RESERVOIR DOGS and PULP FICTION was to take characters in a crime story and expand on the parts you don’t usually see, for example in PULP instead of just showing the hitmen run in and threaten the guys we see them in the car on the way there, waiting around in the hall when they get there early, talking about frivolous shit. It seems like he saw CITY ON FIRE and he said I like this part where they meet up after the robbery, there should be a whole movie about that. So that’s what he did, he even skips the robbery itself, shows us the thieves at the rendezvous point afterwards, panicked about what went down, not knowing where everybody is, exchanging stories about what they saw, arguing about their next step. Chow Yun Fat gets wounded at the end. Tim Roth gets wounded at the beginning and lays on the floor bleeding for the whole movie.

In RESERVOIR DOGS the story unfolds at first from their limited perspective. They don’t know what happened to the other people, and neither do we. Nobody knows who the undercover cop is, and we don’t until halfway through.

You’re telling me Tarantino only made a good movie by copying from CITY ON FIRE. I’m telling you you’re wrong because the power of the movie is what he left out. He did it by not copying CITY ON FIRE.

If RESERVOIR DOGS had been billed as a remake of CITY ON FIRE these people would be complaining that it had almost nothing to do with the original. I think it’s more like FRIDAY THE 13TH PART 2 playing with the death scenes from TWITCH OF THE DEATH NERVE. Is it a reference? Is it a rip off? Who gives a shit, it works, it stands on its own, and way moreseo in this case, where RESERVOIR DOGS isn’t really the same type of movie at all and in my opinion is a better, more original and obviously more influential movie that I can rewatch many times over the years and it only gets better and better.

But that’s no skin off CITY ON FIRE’s balls either. It’s a pretty good one. Worth seeing. Lucky thing RESERVOIR keeps its memory alive.


VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, September 25th, 2012 at 1:15 am and is filed under Action, Crime, Reviews. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

35 Responses to “City On Fire”

  1. I like Tarantino, I don’t think he did a rip-off of City on Fire, BUT, the thing that makes his movies unique, the “let’s expand the parts you don’t see usually in a movie”, he took that from George V. Higgins’ novels (yes, the guy that wrote the novel that is the basis of Killing Them Softly). The thing about Tarantino’s movies is not if his movies are original, they are not although I like them, is that he makes comments on cinema itself using the movies, like the nouvelle vague did.

    City on Fire is an entertening movie but damn hard to find where I live.

  2. Aw man. I’ve been meaning to watch this again for ages. Now the question, read the review first, or watch the DVD? I’m torn.

  3. jules joseph bonnot

    September 25th, 2012 at 4:44 am

    Full Alert and School on fire are also terrific. Ringo Lam is one of the most underestimated director in the world.

  4. Full Contact is by far my favourite Ringo Lam flick. The visuals are truly stunning and Chow gets to play a different type of character outside of his usual dual wielding hitman persona.I never got into CITY ON FIRE. But if I watch it again, I´m sure I´ll like it more know than when I first saw it.

  5. I always thought that “RESERVOIR DOGS is just a remake CITY ON FIRE” thing was total horseshit. I guess DIE HARD is just a remake of THE TOWERING INFERNO because the building catches on fire at one point.

    Also, I remember like 45% of the dialogue from DOGS word for word. I barely remember any specific scenes from CITY ON FIRE. But I’ve never been a big Ringo Lam fan. Not enough shooting.

  6. Anybody else see the “Tarantino just stole everything he’s ever done from better filmmakers because he’s annoying and I don’t like him” thing as the modern version of the “Shakespeare couldn’t have possibly written all those plays because he was just a filthy commoner” ridiculousness? It’s this snobbery where frustrated film school grads get bent out of shape that some jackass video store clerk changed the movie game and they didn’t, so they concoct this elaborate theory that’s not based in fact about how actually all the talent in those films came from a more deserving and scholarly source.

    Well, fuck you, guys. Your math does not add up. HAMLET was written by the son of a glovemaker, and RESERVOIR DOGS is a completely different movie than CITY ON FIRE. Deal with it.

  7. I watched CITY ON FIRE because I was curious of how much shot for shot of a “remake” RESERVOIR DOGS was. And all the connection I could see was that they were both heist movies. I never thought about it much until now, it really was a stupid thing back then. There are some similariteis in the relationship between the lead characters. The Keitel/Roth and the Yun-Fat/Lee relationships in the movie, but that´s as far as i am willing to go to acknowledge what Tarantino borrowed.

  8. Seconding Jules’ appreciation for Full Alert. That one manages to mix Lam’s down-to-earth grit with a story with larger setpieces.

  9. George V. Higgins wrote a helluva lot more then just the basis for “Killing Them Softly” (terrible new title). He wrote THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (which I believe Vern has reviewed in the past)—one of the greatest crime novels ever, and the source for one of the best gangster movies of all time. Without Higgins’ there’d have been no Robert E. Parker, no Dennis Lehane, no THE DEPARTED, no GONE BABY GONE or THE TOWN, and Tarantino’s career would’ve been very different without his influence. (EDDIE COYLE has a character named Jackie Brown, for starters. : ) I’d argue Higgins is probably as much an influence on Tarantino in general as better known influences like Paul Schrader and Elmore Leonard.

  10. Leonard says reading FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE was what made him realize that he could write a crime novel using the patterns of everyday speech, so even if Tarantino never read any Higgins, he’s still the grandfather of the QT style.

  11. I don’t think RESERVOIR DOGS is a rip off of CITY ON FIRE, or even a remake but the influences run much greater than just the climax. The dynamics of the relationship between Mr. White and Mr. Orange are also similar to the bond Chow Yun-Fat’s character Chow shares with Danny Lee’s Character Fu. Also that iconic shot of Mr. White with two pistols blazing shooting out a car windshield is borrowed from CITY ON FIRE. Fu the character that seems to be the inspiration for Mr. White has an identical scene in COF. However, I want to stress that I don’t think that there is anything wrong with how QT borrows from CITY ON FIRE. Vern did a great job of explaining how QT used ideas and elements from COF to craft something entirely different with RESERVOIR DOGS, and to me that is part of what makes QT so special. As a film maker QT is like a great hip hop producer he samples his favorite parts of other films to craft something new a different.

  12. Jules, I agree that Ringo Lam is pretty underrated. I love FULL CONTACT & CITY ON FIRE and they are such different styles of film, but both very well executed. COF is a gritty drama with not very much gun play and FULL CONTACT is an over the top action classic. Actually, I think there is more action in the first 30 minutes of FULL CONTACT then there is in all of COF.

    Mr. M, have you seen FULL CONTACT? I bet you will approve of the amount of shooting in the film, and there is even a scene where Chow Yun-Fat does martial arts.

    Another thing about Ringo Lam worth mentioning is his use of hip hop influenced music in his films. One of the things I love about COF is the music. It has this great hip hop influenced score and the film was made in 1987. Hip hop music was still in its infancy as an art form in the 80’s and Lam lived on the opposite side of the globe from where hip hop was born but he was using it his films way before most other directors.

  13. I saw FULL CONTACT but I don’t remember it too well. Never a good sign.

    The problem with HK action cinema is that there’s so goddamn much of it that I hardly ever watch anything twice. I feel like I’m barely managing to keep my head above water with all the movies I want to watch but haven’t gotten around to yet, so the idea of revisiting one I’ve already seen never occurs to me, even if I’ve forgotten everything about it. How can I bring myself to waste valuable time rewatching FULL CONTACT when YES, MADAM is still sitting there on my shelf unwatched? There just aren’t enough hours in the day.

  14. YES,MADAM is not all that great,besides the action. FULL CONTACT at least besides the action is fucking gorgeous to look at.Great visually with the lighting. It also has a montage where Chow tries to learn how to shoot a gun with his other hand because his gunhand got fucked up when he was betrayed. That sequence always gets me pumped.

  15. Mr. M, I completely understand. The amount of HK action cinema out there can be overwhelming.

    I don’t think YES, MADAM is as good as FULL CONTACT. It drags in parts and there is less action in the film, but the ending is amazing. I also love the bad guy from YES, MADAM he may be a cold bolded criminal but he loves to laugh, and his laugh is hilarious.

    Shoot I agree about the Chow learning to shoot with the other hand sequence from FULL CONTACT. It is also one of the scenes that gives the film a very modern western feel. (MILD SPOILERS) Chow is the is the wounded and down on his luck gunslinger that has been betrayed and left for dead, but he retrains himself to be an effective killer and like a phoenix he raises from the ashes to seek revenge. It is like something out of a Clint Eastwood western.

  16. I was not expecting YES, MADAM to be a masterpiece, but that’s fine with me. Masterpieces are overrated, in my opinion.

    I’ll try to make it a point to give FULL CONTACT another spin, though. It’s just sitting there in my Woo/Yun Fat/Hark/To section. Might as well put it to good use.

  17. It’s been a while since I saw CITY ON FIRE, but I seem to remember that the two-handed shooting at the police car is pretty similar in RESERVOIR DOGS, or do I remember it wrong?

    FULL CONTACT’s one of my favorite yun-fat movies, even if I do think that Simon Yam steals the show in almost every scene he’s in.

  18. Simon Yam steals every scene he’s in no matter what movie it is. It’s pretty rare for me to praise a Chinese actor for his mega-acting abilities (normally I wish they’d tone it down a bit and stop playing every line for the cheap seats) but Yam chews the scenery with a Cageian verve that puts him head and shoulders above his competitors. You ever see RUN & KILL? My. Fucking. God. What a gleefully sick fuck, even compared to Dr. Lamb.

  19. I totally agree about Simon Yam. He is like the HK equivalent of Nic Cage. He embraces the Mega.

  20. Last Friday I saw EYE IN THE SKY, where Yam plays a police sergeant that’s basically old, fat and who dresses like a pensioner, and he STILL manages to be both cool an awesome!

  21. I can’t tell you how much the Tarantino-the-plagiarist argument pisses me off, firstly because it’s bullshit but secondly because it wouldn’t fucking matter if he was. His movies are awesome either way and if making an awesome movie out of pre-existing material doesn’t take talent then how come the vast majority of remakes fall (far, far) short? The other argument I hear a lot is that Tarantino took a step forward with Jackie Brown and then two steps back with Kill Bill. I hear people (i’m looking at you, Mark Kermode) whine on about what a shame it is that he never matured into something “more” but instead allowed himself to languish by making safe and apparently easy genre films. As if the only acceptable career trajectory is to one day hopefully become P.T Anderson or something. Well, you know what? We already have a P.T Anderson and If Tarantino doesn’t make Tarantino films then who the fuck will, Mark Kermode? Answer me that you chump.

  22. FULL CONTACT is good, but back in the 90s when you had to find that shit with 4 different subtitles at a video store in Honolulu it was hyped up as being as good an HK action movie as HARD BOILED or SUPERCOP, and it just isn’t so I’ll always associate the movie with being let down a bit.

    While were on Ringo Lam, has anyone seen TRIANGLE?

    Speaking of QT ripping people off, anyone notice how all of KILL BILL PART 1 is almost wholesale stolen from GAME OF DEATH? What a hack.

  23. “But the interesting thing is that despite all the gunplay in Hong Kong movies of this time it was – at least according to this movie – pretty hard to come by guns.”
    Makes sense given the british rule of Hong Kong at the time, and if you remember, in HARD BOILED the villain was a gun runner. It’s also an element of the recent HK set video game SLEEPING DOGS, which has gunplay, but mostly features hand to hand combat.

  24. Just for my two cents, Ringo Lam never seemed interested in being the heir apparent to Woo. Full Contact not withstanding – i.e. the original bullet time. Sorry Matrix.

    One of my absolute favorite of Lam’s films was The Victim. I would say To and Lam were more closely related thematically. Sometimes the action is there, but most of the time it is not because it does not suit the particular story they are telling.

    As to Tarantino and the rip off story, it begs the question of what makes a great story. Is it the through line or is it the details? Seems like many writers I know (myself included) struggle with through lines, but they all have a plethora of details. So, the question for me becomes at what point is Die Hard in a …name the location… okay but still acknowledged as Die Hard in a….name the location….

    And then at what point is City on Fire, mixed with Taking of Pelham 1.2.3 and a few other influences celebrated as the second coming of independent film. Details or through lines, I do not know the answer, but I think it is an interesting topic for discussion.

  25. The bed kill in Friday 2 is straight up stolen from Twitch of the death Nerve.

  26. Marlow, I’ve seen Triangle. I remember the structural gimmick more than what happened in the thing. Recommended for fans of any of the directors, I guess, but it’s not going to make any converts IMO.

    MDM, totally agree on the Lam/To parallel. I like The Victim too – that’s the spooky one with Lau Ching-wan and the tall Tony Leung? Loved how Lau would fit into all sorts of characters and quietly make you believe in all of them.

  27. I keep meaning to watch TRIANGLE seeing as how I do like the three directors and the cast but it always makes me think of Strong Bad’s rule that “Too much of a good thing is an awesome thing. But too much of an awesome thing is…umm…really really dumb and bad.” so it makes me nervous.

  28. JD,it can be that the Name Jacky Brown is part George V.Higgins Hommage but i am not sure.
    Higgins Jacky Brown is a Man,the Character in the Novel “Rum Punch”by Elmore Leonard,is called Jacky Burke and is
    a white Woman.I guess changing the Name Burke in Brown is more a Hommage to Pam Grier(Foxy Brown).
    But Tarantino never made a Secret about Ripping of Noir Writers.Charles Willeford is a big Influence too.
    Who cares ? For Killer Joe,Tracy Letts rips of Jim Thompson.As long as they are stealing from the right Guys,i have
    no problem with it.
    About Reservoir Dogs,i think “The Killing”and “The Taking of Pelhem 123” are much bigger Influences than the Lam.

  29. I always thought the whole “Tarantino rips off other movies!” missed the point of the whole thing. It’s true that he lifts certain elements wholesale from other movies, but it’s the context they’re used in that really matters. He’s like a really great DJ — it’s not his music, but he knows how to put it together into a functional whole better than the original creators did.

    Still, it can be shocking to encounter one of the movies he takes elements from without expecting to. I watched CHARLEY VARRICK recently and was stunned when the “pair of pliers and a blowtorch” line came up word for word. Yeah, one of the most badass lines in all of PULP FICTION is cribbed directly from another movie (OK, he added the part about “hard pipe-hitting niggers” but I’m not sure that really adds much). Initially it depressed me a little, but then again, it’s just a minor passing line in VARRICK. In PULP FICTION, it’s a line you remember for years after. He didn’t write that song, but he played it better than anyone else.

  30. CITY ON FIRE and RESERVOIR DOGS are both excellent examples of the action genre,however, one is a heist flick and the other a cops and robbers movie. On the surface they have nothing in common, when one digs a little deeper into them they can catch certain similarities, some bigger than others. Vern is completely right though, it is the little differences that we all remember the most (characters, dialogue, etc.) Both are worth checking out for anyone interested in cool movies. Also totally agree about the other movies by Ringo, even a couple of his Van Damme vehicles are decent, pretty much all his movies are worth a look. Then again, it could just be me.

  31. Rehydrated Dehydrated Pirate Paul

    September 26th, 2012 at 4:54 pm

    I never “got” the Reservoir Dogs / Pelham 123 comparisons. And I love both films. Other than the extremely obvious (both films feature groups of criminals who are known only by the codenames of colours, one of whom commits suicide rather than being caught – although the crime and the circumstances of the suicide are totally different in each movie) I find it difficult to see any particular similarities between them.

    I’m sure I’ve seen “City on Fire” but I can’t for the life of me remember what I thought about it. I’d like to revisit it at some point. I’m sure I saw it on TV, so possibly broken up with adverts, etc.

  32. Inspector – You have the correct Victim.

    And I have to admit when it comes to Triangle that I was a little disappointed.

    Lam was responsible for one of Van Damme’s best efforts in my opinion though (although not necessarily Lam’s best effort)

    In Hell. Although it has been some years and miles since I watched it. It seemed to thoroughly trounce the other couple of collaborations between Lam and Van Damme.

  33. It’s funny because I read an article a year or so ago on a movie sight that tried to make the argument that Reservoir Dogs was a complete rip off of City On Fire. When describing City On Fire they claimed it was about a group of thieves who rob a jewelery store, hold up afterwards, and then have a shoot out. They completely forgot to mention that there was another hour of the film prior to the heist. In fact, I didn’t realize this until Vern’s review. Even if Reservoir Dogs were based on the blueprint of this film, I don’t think it takes a whole lot away from the film. Plots are often reused in movies. It’s what you do with those familiar tropes and themes that matter.

  34. Wasn’t Full Contact by Ringo Lam inspired by The Hunter/Point Blank? It uses the same plot, but a very different execution and characters, as they are nothing similar to the ones in The Hunter. So it has nothing to do with The Hunter, except it’s listed on imdb as a version of Point Blank and Payback. I think this is a good case for Vern to review it.

  35. Reservoir Dogs has about as much in common with City On Fire as Inglorious Basterds has with Where Eagles Dare.

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