FIRESTORM, the Hong Kong movie from 2013, is unfortunately not a remake of the 1998 firefighter action vehicle starring Howie Long. But it’s a good movie. Andy Lau (INFERNAL AFFAIRS, HOUSE OF FLYING DAGGERS, THE GREAT WALL) plays Inspector Lui, a by-the-book cop trying to catch a gang of brazen thieves. He’s there when they literally lift an armored car with a crane, and he hopes to be there (but more prepared) the next time they strike.
This is not the Hong Kong I know from other movies, with all the bustle and boats and steam coming off of outdoor markets. This is clean, professional downtown Hong Kong. Tall buildings, office clothes. That robbery happens in broad daylight, the gunmen wearing scary fencing type masks. It’s got a realistic feel but it’s this outlandish action spectacle, like HEAT meets more of a DIE HARD WITH A VENGEANCE world.
First we meet this guy To Shing-bong (Gordon Lam, EXILED, IP MAN, VENGEANCE, DRUG WAR) as he gets out of prison. We see his girlfriend Yin Bing (Yao Chen, JOURNEY TO THE WEST 2) waiting for him across the street when he goes free. But he looks at her coldly and walks away. She’s disappointed, confused, angry. There’s a car there. Is somebody else gonna pick him up, somebody dragging him right back into crime? He walks to the car but closes the door. Disses the driver. Then he comes over to Bing and makes a funny face. He’s just fucking with her.
So we gotta kinda like this guy, whoever he is, if he’s able to make a joke out of his own release from prison. How long had he been planning that one? She’s kind of sick of it, though. She calls him an idiot, half lovingly. But we start to see him use his dumb humor to change the subject when she tries to talk serious about straightening out his life. And then he rams Lui’s car during the robbery. It really seems like he’s involved, but he claims to just be a private citizen in an innocent car accident.
The police department’s hands seem to be tied in some ways. Everybody agrees this is the work of a powerful crimelord named Cao (Hu Jun, RED CLIFF, BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS), but he’s able to just walk into their headquarters while they’re trying to prove it. He knows they know but he pretends to be pretending to be a helpful citizen, menacing them by playing friendly and noticing his photo hung up on their board. “I didn’t know I was so famous around here!”
By the way, I was happy to see Michael Wong, the Chinese-American actor from LEGACY OF RAGE, KNOCK OFF and ROYAL WARRIORS, as the Chief Superintendent. He’s good at playing these vain douchebag roles. One of his lines here is, “I’m going to meet the media. How’s my hair?”
When Lui brings Shing-Bong in to talk he does it in his office, not an interrogation room, and we learn that they knew each other growing up. They were Judo rivals, and still seem bitter about something that went down in competition. This is a great double set-up: 1) They know Judo. 2) They will have a rematch. Both literal and figurative, so I guess you could call it a triple set-up.
There’s action throughout, but to me the best sequence is not the climax, it’s about a half hour in when a police raid in a housing project is ambushed with bombs and machine guns and turns into a big shootout and chase. A masked Cao shoots at them with a gun so powerful it knocks chunks out of the walls and railing like a sledge hammer, spraying debris on them. We see Lui do what must be a Judo move and then he comes face to handkerchiefed face with Shing-bong and they have that fight they’ve been waiting for, but they’re rolling down stairs and sliding down banisters. Different from the school gym, I imagine.
This is cool enough, but then fiery explosions start blowing out the side of the building and the two of them are sent flying and improbably land on a pile of gates and other debris that land on clothes lines and form a shaky bridge between two buildings. And they continue their match on top of this! I personally would be more careful but I admire these two for fighting without regard for bridge safety. Lui lifts him all the way up, screaming, and slams him down hard. The second time he does it it collapses and they plummet, crashing through various tarps and things.
Again this reminds me of a middle DIE HARD, where everything seems brutal and painful but also they’re able to do and survive some pretty ridiculous things. It will bother some people that the green-screening and digital additions are not up to a Hollywood level of realistic-ness, but I was able to forgive it. I do wish I could’ve seen it in 3D, which it’s clearly designed for.
Some have noted how the expensive American movies now are being tailored to appeal to international markets (and specifically China). A movie like FIRESTORM feels a little like that too, that they’re making big spectacle inspired somewhat by our movies, and some would say it’s watering down their own cinematic traditions. But it still has that great Hong Kong cinema quality of moral grey area in their characters: cops who don’t always do the right thing, criminals who have good qualities, and relationships between the two. We watch Lui destroy himself by violating his code, and Shing-Bong try to redeem himself by helping him out.
There are moving acts of heroism. In one tense sequence Lui is on the ground, crawling, about to be run over, and his partner’s car comes in from the side just in time, slamming into the other vehicle. He willingly gives himself serious car-wreck injuries to save the inspector.
Lui also has a longtime informant (can’t find the name of the actor) who he’s become so close with that he’s godfather to the man’s autistic daughter. He doesn’t want his friend to risk being involved in this one, but he insists, and there’s a harrowing sequence where the bad guys figure out he’s a rat and he has to make a run for the apartment and try to get his daughter to stay quiet, which is a challenge. By the time Lui gets there they’ve both been thrown out the window. As he tries to get the girl to the hospital in time he realizes the torture she went through, staying quiet the whole time per her father’s instructions.
This is a devastating scene. No DIE HARD would go this dark. But I suppose if you need a reason for the clean-as-a-whistle inspector to start going off book, this one makes sense. In the next sequence he tries to drink alcohol, which is not his usual protocol. They really took the starch out of that collar.
He finds Cao, punches through his driver’s side window, almost kills him, ends up framing him. This will come back to Lui. He ends up like a murderer, having to do more and more dirt to cover up the previous dirt. He shoulda stuck with his principles.
Director Alan Yuen (PRINCESS D) and action director Chin Ka-lok (SHINJUKU INCIDENT, COLD WAR) give us a climax with cars exploding and launching into the air, flipping over and sliding across pavement upside down, an explosion sending Lui flying and landing on the hood of a car, subway station exploding, street collapsing, cars swallowed into the earth, Shing-bong running slow motion through falling debris from collapsing pedestrian bridge… it’s pretty good shit.
Lau is a veteran of Hong Kong action, but he doesn’t look traditionally badass. Like Jet Li in recent years, I can’t help but keep thinking he looks a little like Pee-wee Herman. And I think that really works for this role because it’s the Inspector’s uptightness and serious professionalism that make him a (somewhat) effective cop. And it gives him an underdog quality as he’s being repeatedly thrown around, dropped, banged onto things and crushed inside things. He doesn’t seem indestructible, just lucky and determined. And the movie itself has a similar quality. You’re not sure about it, but it keeps running it’s ass off and it makes it through to the end.