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Raging Fire
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by Jay Seaver

"Good Hong Kong action, whether you like kung fu or guns."
4 stars

SCREENED AT THE 2021 FANTASIA INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL & NEW YORK ASIAN FILM FESTIVAL: "Raging Fire" arrives in theaters about a year after its director's death, and it must be an odd thing to leave behind a legacy like that of Benny Chan Muk-Sing: Some romance, some comedy, a weird kids' movie, but mostly mayhem, three decades or so in the movie business of putting together a string of punches, kicks, gunshots, and explosions for maximum excitement. Some filmmakers spend their later years using the chops they've developed on such crowd-pleasers to do something more personal or "important", but Chan passed too early for that. Perhaps it's fitting that his last work is some high-quality action that still ends with a question of whether things could have turned out differently.

As it opens, the HKPD is targeting a drug deal between Wang Kwun and Long Hair of the Viet gang, only to have a fourth group show up and turn it into a bloodbath, slaughtering both gangs and the cops. Maybe it would have turned out different if Cheung Chung-Bong (Donnie Yen Ji-Dan) and his team had arrived on time, but some petty higher-up took them off the assignment because Bong wouldn't change a report to get a rich man's son out of a jam. And, indeed, Bong's unflinching dedication to the rules may be even closer to the root of the whole situation; the assault was carried out by ex-cops led by Bong's former partner, Yau Kong-Ngo (Nicholas Tse Ting-Fung), who spent three years in jail because Bong wouldn't fudge his testimony after a suspect died in Ngo's company during a kidnapping investigation. Now, Ngo's team is out and looking to get paid - and, of course, revenge.

It's the sort of story one can pick at a lot if one is in the mood - with Ngo's team losing a guy during the first assault, and what the audience eventually flashes back to, either the HKPD should be onto him much earlier or there should be a reason why, and Bong has enough old friends, mentors, and the like on the force that they kind of become a middle-aged, suited blur. To the extent that the script by Chan and others has a theme, it's the fickleness of fate, with the idea being that if Ngo and Bong were given the others' assignments during that kidnapping four years ago, the film would have different heroes and villains (or at least it's hopefully that, rather than tough cops with guts should be given a free hand rather than be punished for it).

On the other hand, Chan and company don't play with the idea that their fates could be interchangeable that much, in large part because Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse are so clearly more suited for their respective roles. Tse dives into the villain role with apparent relish, suggesting that the self-effacing fellow seen in flashbacks was a skin he shed pretty naturally, selling that he can be calculating and ruthless even as he's full of rage. Yen, on the other hand, seems a bit stiffer than usual, maybe not exactly lacking charisma but using the squareness that comes natural to make Bong more by the book. Of course, he's not exactly there to be charismatic; he's there because he's still light on his feet despite hitting hard, and brings along his own quality action team. There are only two or three sequences where that sort of hand-to-hand combat are at the forefront, but they're good stuff, heavy-hitting slugfests that wreck everything around Bong and Ngo and let them wail on each other. Yen's at the point where his body can use a little more time pointing guns than throwing punches, but the finale in a church undergoing enough renovation to have scaffolding the play in is a blast to watch as it finally narrows the conflict down to these two guys directly.

And there's plentiful action along the way, with Chan and his team pouring plenty into the other big action pieces, from an opening bit of combat where the masks worn by Ngo's team adds atmosphere to the ruthlessness to a climactic daylight shootout where producers Chan and Yen have clearly ordered the large, John Woo-in-his-prime-sized boxes of blanks and squibs, with enough bystanders stuck in the crossfire to completely hammer home just how unhinged Ngo and his team have become. Chan and company use the action centerpiece to kick things up a notch, playing up Ngo's cleverness and ruthlessness and escalating the general level of damage he's willing to cause with a car-shredding chase that not only leads into another fun bit of cat and mouse but incidentally has a couple of the film's best comic beats, including Yen's semi-meta best line.

Could these two characters have each gone the other way? Maybe; that's certainly the idea Chan and company seem to want the audience pondering once the smoke clears. But ultimately they're who they are, and Chan was who he was, and that's a guy who, if not quite in the upper pantheon of Hong Kong's great action filmmakers, certainly capable of delivering the brand of high-impact action in "Raging Fire" like few of his contemporaries.

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originally posted: 08/18/21 05:34:08
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 New York Asian Film Festival For more in the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival For more in the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival series, click here.

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Directed by
  Benny Chan

Written by
  Benny Chan

  Donnie Yen
  Nicholas Tse
  Jeana Ho
  Ray Lui
  Patrick Tam
  Chris Collins
  Simon Yam

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