Benny Chan's impressive final feature is a dizzying cop procedural that harks back to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema
Raging Fire has the air of an elegy. Not only is it the final film by its director Benny Chan, who died during post-production in 2020, but the film clearly harks back to a bygone time in Hong Kong cinema, where in the latter half of the 20th century – at least in terms of talent-per-capita – it was arguably the greatest film industry on the planet. Granted, many of the directors who helped make it such a thriving film industry – John Woo, Tsui Hark, and Johnnie To – are still at work, but no longer at their peaks. The unrelenting activity that characterised the ‘70s, ‘80s and ‘90s has dissipated.
Certainly now, with mainland China exerting an ever-increasing grip on Hong Kong, including new censorship laws for filmmakers, and a mainstream film industry increasingly obsessed with CGI-drenched spectacle muddied with propaganda (making it ultimately indistinguishable from Hollywood), it feels like an especially hard time for cinephiles with a love and admiration for the glory days of Hong Kong filmmaking.
Raging Fire is by no means a completely unfettered return to that mode. Its dramatic scenes are wet and melodramatic, its moral messaging is simplistic and easily telegraphed, and for all of Donnie Yen’s brilliance as an onscreen martial artist, he is too stiff and one-note as a dramatic actor in the film’s dialogue scenes (the antagonist, played by Nicholas Tse, is far more charming, magnetic, and snake-like). And the film’s plot, about an indefatigable by-the-book super cop (played by Yen) having to combat both a corrupt financial world and a former partner-turned-criminal (Tse), is remarkably sanguine about mass surveillance and overreaching state security powers.
But ideological spoon-feeding is not what we’re here for. We’re here for action, and action we get. Raging Fire is relentlessly fresh and imaginative in its fight scenes, using each set-piece as an opportunity to try out something new. Choreographed by Yen, they are an exquisite showcase of his abilities and that of the stunt workers around him. To wit: a shanty-town rumble that sees characters charging through walls and bouncing vertically up and down narrow alleyways to get away from assailants; a car chase that gets stuck in a traffic jam, both cops and robbers stuck with nowhere to go; and a final fight scene in a church, with the Virgin Mary overlooking our two leads as they go head-to-head.
Amidst the chaos, there is always a careful sense of cinematic space and timing. The spatial relation of protagonists is always clear, and blows have a real physical connection. Although CGI assists do come in handy, each set-piece is clearly built around the physical capabilities of the actors, giving the action a brutality that is entirely satisfying. The action sequences here are plentiful enough and strong enough to elevate an otherwise mediocre cop thriller, simultaneously putting Hollywood’s own action filmmaking to shame.
Raging Fire is in UK cinemas from 12 November.Where to watch