Firestorm (Hong Kong, 2013) [Terracotta 2014]

firestormAndy Lau is one of Hong Kong’s most commercially successful actors, in part because he has made some smart choices with regards to the range of projects that he chooses. In 2011 alone he had an eclectic output, ranging from the Chinese remake of What Woman Want, the Ann Hui drama A Simple Life and the Benny Chan martial arts epic Shaolin, and making a small appearance in the Chinese propaganda extravaganza Beginning of the Great Revival. He seems to have a great mind for making business decisions that keep his appeal reaching far and wide. Every film he makes may not appeal to you, but chances are he’s making something that does.  But then, like everyone, he makes some very questionable decisions. Case and point: Firestorm.

Lau not only stars in this film, but is also one of the films producers, along with William Kong, most notable for producing Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Hero (2002), and Fearless (2006). They teamed up with first time director Alan Yuen, who had previously written Shaolin, as well as Jackie Chan’s New Police Story (2004) and Robin-B-Hood (2006). At some point, they felt confident enough in this man and his script that they felt he should direct it. Granted, the film was a commercial success when released, so Andy Lau again deserves credit for making a film people will pay money to see, but compared to much of his fare, Firestorm is an absolute mess of a film.

Andy Lau plays Police Inspector Lui, a hard-boiled cop who is hell bent on catching the vicious Cao Nam (Hu Jun), a mainland Chinese criminal who leads a band of highly trained crooks who flawlessly execute high profile heists, blasting their way through city streets with little regard for civilian life. Faced with the fact that somehow Cao Nam always manages to elude the police after each heist, leaving no evidence to connect him to the crime, Inspector Lui must resort to extreme measures to bring the criminal to justice.  Lucky for him, an old classmate whom he use to practice Judo with, To Shing-Bong, is working for Nam, and agrees to be Lui’s informant in exchange for help starting a new life after his release from prison. Unfortunately for all involved, nothing is ever that simple.

Firestorm succeeds on many levels, but sadly fails on just as many. The action in the film is at times fantastic, as entire blocks of Hong Kong are torn asunder by a hail of bullets and a cacophony of explosions, rivaling anything Hollywood can muster. Of course, it should be said that it also becomes borderline comical in its outlandishness, and the scale becomes so large that special effects are used that are sadly quite poor, and they clearly undermine any of the shock and awe that has been built by the pyrotechnics. Chin Kar-lok received a nomination for best action choreography for this film, and it’s easy to see why. The film also boasts some great performances, best of all by Gordon Lam, who plays the conflicted mole caught between the two warring sides (although Hu as Cao Nam seemed way to restrained, and Michael Wong was Michael Wong). Unfortunately, the film suffers most from a poor script that cares little for logic and characterization. Which is even more surprising given that director Alan Yuen started as a scriptwriter, and none of his previous screenwriting efforts boast nearly as many forced and/or contrived plot devices, lapses in logic or outright bizarre narrative choices.

I found myself blown away by the insane action scenes just as many times as I found myself groaning from horrendous screen direction. It’s hard to say this film is a failure, because again, there are some great moments to it.  But there are some downright painful ones too.

Firestorm plays at the Terracotta Far East Film Festival on Sunday June 1. Click here for screening times and tickets.