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Out of the Inferno
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by Jay Seaver

"The Pangs and company don't quite catch fire until the end."
3 stars

Brothers Danny and Oxide Pang made a splash on the Chinese film scene with "The Eye" and "Re-Cycle", and have worked steadily both on individual projects as a team since, but the movies they have made don't seem to be booked at a lot of genre festivals any more. Maybe it's because they're like "Out of the Inferno" (aka "Inferno" and "Out of Inferno" depending how the title is translated) from 2013 - well-made enough but not unique. Hollywood makes things like this, and the Pang's good eyes roughly making up for the difference in effects budget between there and Hong Kong doesn't quite grab one's attention, even if it is a perfectly fine movie about heroic firefighters.

Four years ago, brothers Mak Tai-kwan (Lau Ching-wan) and Mak Keung (Louis Koo Tin-lok) were both offered jobs in the private sector; Keung took one, while Tai-kwan stayed with the Guangzhou Fire Department. Now, both of their lives are at a turning point; Tai-kwan has decided to leave the department so that his expectant wife Lam Si-lok (Angelica Lee Sin-je) doesn't have to worry about every day and Keung intends to propose to his girlfriend (Gillian Chung Yan-tung) after an event launching the company's fire-suppression products. Given that they are in use in the high rise where the company is headquartered - and, coincidentally, where Si-lok's OB/GYN (Wang Xue-qi) has his office - it's not going to be a great advertisement, as a set of unlikely circumstances will carry the flames through the entire forty-plus story building.

It's kind of a shame that this plot requires Keung's technology to be something of a spectacular failure; neither the script nor actor Louis Koo portrays him as particularly foolish or full of hubris. On top of that, it makes it a little harder for the filmmakers to talk about the practical difficulties firefighters in cities like Guangzhou face with skyscrapers growing like weeds, too high up for ladders to be stable or water pressure to be sufficient. The moments when the Maks have to solve that sort of problem are some of the film's most thrilling and intriguing, far more exciting than the familiar subplots about a lost kid and an opportunistic crime. Tai-kwan and Keung having different ways of approaching the same problem, and friction about how one is valued monetarily while the other is lionized (something that applies to a lot of fields where risk is involved) might be a much more interesting way to create tension between them than the late introduction of issues involving their father's death.

Lau Ching-wan and Louis Koo could have risen to better material, but they fare well enough with what the writers (including Szeto Kam-yuen and the Pangs) give them. Lau finds the stoicism of someone like Tai-kwan without much trouble, putting just enough pridefulness in underneath the character's wit and humility to keep him a little stiff around people other than his wife but still clearly capable of warmth. Koo is similarly well-cast as Keung, both in the moments when he seems a little too pleased with himself for his own good and when it becomes clear he takes his job as seriously as it deserves. They're well-paired with Angelica Lee and Gillian Chung (although Chung is sidelined relatively early while Lee does nice work in having Si-lok not find Wang Xue-qi's doctor as reassuring as her husband). The folks in smaller roles are capable as well, even if the jewelry store subplot maybe gets played even more frantic than it should.

The characters don't really get a lot of time to sit around discussing their conflicts, though; the building catches fire early and the Pangs never lose sight of how that's the real danger. That means a lot of digital fire, something that can still present challenges to a production in how the filmmakers can make a room into a dangerous obstacle course and the cast can react believably but something can seem off if the flickering doesn't show up on the walls or the thing on fire doesn't quite seem to be showing the effects. Still, they use 3D just as well as one might expect from their visually impressive early films, particularly in terms of showing how tight spaces in certain directions can make it seem like an even longer way down. They and action director Dion Lam Dik-on also save a couple of pretty spiffy thrill sequences for the back half, one involving a crane and the other an elevator shaft, that can stand up quite well on the 2D release the film received in the United States.

It's a shame that this movie didn't get even a cursory theatrical release (or even much of a festival run) here. Maybe it isn't quite the sort of movie that grabs ones attention because it can seemingly only be done in Hong Kong, but it's a decent take on this sort of disaster movie, and even better when it realizes a massive fire is high enough stakes without standard subplots.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=31992&reviewer=371
originally posted: 01/20/18 02:29:27
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USA
  N/A (PG-13)
  DVD: 08-Mar-2016

UK
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