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.