Raging Fire (China/Hong Kong, 2021) [NYAFF 2021]

Following his comedic turn in Enter the Fat Dragon (2020), martial arts star Donnie Yen gets deadly serious again to play a resolutely straight-arrow Hong Kong police officer in Raging Fire. Yen has taken on this type of role many times, most notably in Wilson Yip’s absolutely ballistic MMA-infused Flash Point (2007). However, this star vehicle has particular resonance since it is the final feature by the late director Benny Chan, who helped to launch Yen’s leading man career when he helmed episodes of the hugely popular Chen Zhen television series Fist of Fury (1995). Yen went on to become one of the world’s most lauded action performers while Chan directed such Jackie Chan productions as Who Am I? (1998) and New Police Story (2005) but is arguably best regarded for breathless thrillers like Invisible Target (2007), Connected (2008), and The White Storm (2013).

Despite their success in the industry, and the fact that both would frequently deliver no holds barred contemporary action fare, Yen and Chan had not seen their creative paths cross prior to Raging Fire with the director’s dynamic oeuvre instead showcasing the next generation of local talent (notably Louis Koo, Eddie Peng, Nicholas Tse, and Daniel Wu). Fortunately, this belated reunion came about with the 58-year-old Yen still in formidable form, regardless of Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019) implying an intention to draw a line under such physically demanding projects. Meanwhile, Chan was established as the kind of genre practitioner who could be relied on to push the envelope without succumbing to excess.

In a surprisingly complex spin on the trusty scenario of colleagues turned adversaries, Raging Fire pits Yen against Chan regular Tse (in his seventh performance for the director). Yen is Inspector Bong, the type of hard-line cop who gets results and receives absolute loyalty from his similarly dedicated 5-member squad, but is passed over for promotion because he evinces a disdain for institutional politics. It’s this steadfast refusal to be a ‘team player’ that sees his squad frozen out of an operation to bust drug distributor Wong Kwun (Brian Siswojo). Although they are able to use contacts to determine the location, Bong’s squad arrives late on the scene to find that the gang and the police officers have been massacred.

The culprits are a gang of former cops led by Ngo (Tse, looking like a rock star and seemingly channelling Heath Ledger’s iteration of The Joker), who actually served alongside Bong until strictly adhering to instructions to do anything necessary to resolve a kidnapping case landed them behind bars. Once Bong’s youthful protégé who had the smarts to potentially surpass his mentor professionally, Ngo has been chewed up and spat out by the system so is hell-bent on wrecking havoc. His gang ostensibly works for a Hong Kong crime syndicate, but Ngo takes more pleasure in committing acts of violence and sticking it to his former superiors than walking away with bags of cash. After identifying Ngo as his target, Bong zeroes in on his gang but must contend with his foe’s first hand knowledge of police procedure while being further hindered by department bureaucracy.

Chan’s layered screenplay spends some time on team dynamics (as with Bong’s squad, Ngo’s crew unquestionably trust their leader’s judgment) yet its crucial contrast and interplay concerns the men in charge. Although he has touched on the moral quagmires of law enforcement in Big Bullet (1996) and Invisible Target, the distinct trajectories of Bong and Ngo find Chan making his most explicit commentary on how similarly decent individuals respond differently to corruptive institutional hierarchy. In unflinching fashion, detailed flashbacks show how Ngo’s career freefall occurred because at once went too far yet was just following the orders of a commanding officer who gave false assurance that he had his back. Although it is suggested that Bong would have suffered the same fate if he had been given the doomed assignment instead, Chan positions the older officer as someone who operates within vaguely defined lines yet remains wary of higher authority and is aware of how those who do the leg work are sacrificial. If Ngo’s belief in the system ultimately places him in fierce opposition to it, Bong’s acknowledgment of its flaws, and the difficulty of applying broad rules to specific situations, keeps him balanced. Indeed, a courtroom flashback to the Ngo’s trail sees Bong trying to explain, if not justify, his colleague’s actions within the grey area that they were committed, but is cut short by a prosecutor for whom ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ are the only categorizations. Yet when this callous system turns Ngo and his crew into a threats to society, it is Bong who is expected to put his life on the line to eradicate the aberration. Raging Fire boasts a number of strong dramatic scenes with Yen and Tse playing their roles to the hilt, particularly in a tense interrogation room confrontation which subtly peels away tacit mutual respect to provide a springboard for the combustible second half.

However, it is still primarily an action spectacle and thoroughly delivers on those terms. Having been diagnosed with nasopharyngeal cancer, Chan passed away in August 2020 while Raging Fire was still in post-production leaving the director’s close collaborators to add the finishing touches. Tautly edited by Curran Pang, the result is one of Chan’s most propulsive films with the solemn tone enhanced by Yuen Man-fung’s shadowy, borderline dystopian cinematography while a run of absolutely thumping set pieces can be favorably compared to Invisible Target or Wilson Yip’s bar-raising SPL (2005). Aside from some incongruous CGI during an otherwise well orchestrated car chase, the stunts are thrillingly executed. Bong’s attempt to apprehend a suspect in a shantytown area full of henchmen recalls the gritty, close quarters skirmishes of Gareth Evans’ The Raid (2011) and Erik Matti’s Buybust (2018) but with Yen’s lethal kicks thrown in. The big climax echoes the epic gun battle in Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) by featuring an ear-shattering shoot-out at Tsim Sha Tsui, but it leads to a final sparring match that could only be found in Hong Kong cinema with sensational fight choreography and two leads who are pushing themselves to the very limit by (mostly) doing all their own stuff.

Balancing expertly staged action sequences and a ton a pathos, Raging Fire is not only a searing directorial swansong but one of the best Hong Kong action films of recent vintage.

Raging Fire is showing at the New York Asian Film Festival on August 9. It is released in North America by Well Go USA Entertainment on August 13.