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Sky On Fire
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by Jay Seaver

"Seldom ignites."
2 stars

It's strange to say this about Ringo Lam Ling-tung's new action movie, but "Sky on Fire" could do with a whole lot more melodrama than it offers. As much as it's usually considered more impressive craft to communicate emotions with some subtlety or have the plot reveal itself gradually, this movie doesn't really ignite until Lam douses it with lighter fluid, and he doesn't do that nearly enough.

The sky in question is the Sky Clinic, located in 160-floor skyscraper "Sky One", a company having phenomenal success in treating cancer, although there's tragedy in its past and the prices are high. Too high for the likes of Lin Jia (Joseph Chang Hsiau-chuen), who has done everything he can for his sister "Jane" Siu Jun (Amber Kuo Tsai-chieh), just back from an attempt at treatment overseas. While they're seeing a former colleague of Sky Clinic founders Gao Yu (Zhang Jingchu) and Tang (Fan Guangyao), the son of another is holding up a truck full of Sky's "Ex-Stem Cells". Security chief Chong Tinbo (Daniel Wu Yin-cho) pursues ringleader Poon Ziwan (Zhang Ruoyun), but when their paths intersect...

... well, it might be nice if more happened. There's a nifty heist and car chase, and then the movie does a severe downshift, almost like Ziwan and Professor Lee really had no plans for what they would do after they got the cells and Sky realized that, while insurance wouldn't cover the whole thing, their business wouldn't be in immediate peril if this went missing. Lam's script sometimes feels like a bunch of ideas circling that have places where they can connect around strong emotions and motivations, but they never really pull together, and the eventually he starts adding and discarding those pieces almost at random.

The things that both holds the movie apart and creates a bit of disappointment that you wouldn't get from a thoroughly mechanical genre piece is that Lam knows he's got some strong emotional material to tap into. There is something obscene about Sky One and the Sky Clinic; though the effects work placing this massive edifice in Hong Kong isn't perfect, there's some thought to its architecture, with the actual office space separated from the street by an automated parking garage (full of identically silver-grey luxury cars) and an especially large and garish advertising screen that looks like something out of Blade Runner so far off the ground that it feels like something out of Jane's and Jia's reaches. Tang's open bragging about how they'll find a way to get rich even though their cancer cure isn't drawn out like chemotherapy is occasionally theatrical - though not something that defies belief in a world that includes Martin Shkreli - but at the movies best moments, Lam shows how well adding some grandeur to something that's primed to anger can work: The juxtaposition of desperation and naked greed can be potent.

And while there's maybe less action and violence than Lam would have included in his 1980s/1990s heyday, he often uses what there is to great knife-twisting effect, making sure that the audience is horrified by an innocent bystander getting shot or a bit of violent backstory being revisited in a cruel, personal way. Just as often, though, the veteran director seems more interested in noodling around a bit, trying to see if there's a new way to do this, whether it's apparently using footage from a GoPro to get right into car chase scenes or playing out certain familiar action beats more realistically; you can almost see Lam pointing out that jumping from building to building is hard, for instance. There's a different sort of wink at the audience in the end credits. It doesn't quite feel like he's detached, but he is fiddling with things as much as jumping right in.

That's reflected in the cast's performances as well; though Fan Guangyao makes a fine villain as Tong and Joseph Chang dives right into the desperation and anger Jia feels, there's something a bit muted about the rest. Sometimes it feels like Amber Kuo's short haircut does more to indicate Jane is dying of cancer than how she acts, while Zhang Ruoyun similarly doesn't seem to have a lot of guidance where Ziwan is concerned - though there's a chip on his shoulder in the earlier scenes, the needed passion isn't there later on. Daniel Wu is probably supposed to be the conflicted center of the film as Tinbo, but even with explanatory flashbacks, he doesn't make much of an impression for much of the film. His best moments come opposite Zhang Jingchu, in part because Zhang is able to quietly show how her desire to help people as a doctor sometimes barely stands up against the cynicism that is the business end of Sky Clinic, and her portrayal of eroding ideals can rub off given that Wu's Tinbo is in a similar position.

There are also hints that the pair may be more than just friends and kindred spirits, and though that's the sort of gratuitous angle that often can make an action movie or a thriller built around non-sexual themes seem pandering, I kind of wish Lam had run with it here. There are veins of anger and idealism ready to be tapped here, but Lam only seldom gets all the way there, and though he's too good a filmmaker to mess it up entirely, it's hard not to see this as a disappointment considering how central the mid-1980s "on Fire" movies were to cementing his reputation.

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originally posted: 12/09/16 08:01:55
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  24-Nov-2016 (MA)

Directed by
  Ringo Lam

Written by
  Ringo Lam

  Daniel Wu
  Joseph Chang
  Amber Kuo
  Ruoyun Zhang
  Jingchu Zhang
  Guangyao Fan

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