Which would you rather do: the hard right thing or the easy wrong thing? A decision like this is simple when the stakes are low, like what’s for dinner: cooking it yourself when you have all the ingredients but are low on energy or ordering out when you subsist on a budget? Things become exponentially more difficult when someone’s life is on the line. This is the core narrative element in Raging Fire, the final film from esteemed Hong Kong action writer/director Benny Chan (New Police Story/Who Am I?), starring Donnie Yen (Ip Man) and Nicholas Tse (New Police Story) as old associates-turned-rivals in an action thriller that turns Hong Kong upside down. Their feud is the result of causality in motion, where one choice begets another yet is viewed as beyond individual control. Though the conflict has played out in stories numerous times, the performances from Yen and Tse will pull you in while the escalating stunt sequences will blow your mind.
Inspector Bong Cheung (Yen) always seeks to do the right thing, despite possessing a penchant for pushing the bounds of the rule book. This frequently gets him into trouble with the top brass, but as long as he keeps making collars, he’s nigh untouchable. But when he refuses to play ball when a superior officer asks for a favor, he gets benched from an upcoming sting operation to take out a well-known and long-sought criminal. This ends up being a blessing in disguise as highly-trained masked interlopers disrupt the mission, leaving a bloody wake behind them. It could be a coincidence that Bong’s former colleague Ngo (Tse) and his teammates are out of prison or it could be the start of something bigger.
One of the things that I love about Asian cinema compared to Hollywood-produced productions is the lack of posturing that takes place. There are plenty of badass characters, but there’s something different about the way they carry themselves. It’s an intensity that carries swagger without falsehood. Tse brings this to Ngo with ease, so much so that, before any fighting begins, we already know the character is not one to be messed with, setting up for the audience that, when he is pushed, a credibility in his ability to cause mayhem. Impressively, just when you think Ngo’s found his limit, Tse finds a different gear to put him in that leads to quite a few surprises before the end. On the flip side, Yen is comfortable as Bong. Audiences have seen him as the good guy before in plenty of films — Big Brother (2019), Ip Man 4: The Finale (2019), Enter the Fat Dragon (2020) — up and down his career. We’ve also seen, on many occasions, just how versatile and creative he can be in his scenes. The trick, though, is finding someone capable of keeping up with him. (Reportedly, Yen was so fast with a sword filming Mulan that director Niki Caro had to rewatch footage slowed down just to follow his movements.) This reviewer is new to Tse, having only seen him as a supporting character in recent release Undercover Punch & Gun (2021), but Chen and Yen found a perfect screen and fight partner in Tse as his movements appear almost faster than Yen. Whether this is an accurate read or if it’s staged this way, Tse’s ability to keep up with and potentially supersede Yen’s speed adds an extra layer to the performances, inducing within the audience an actual fear for Bong’s safety. Add to the mix a few stunt sequences that’ll leave you audibly distressed and you’ve got yourself a top tier Hong Kong action cinema experience.
Quick hat tip to Yen as Action Director of Raging Fire, Action Chorographers Ku Huen Chiu (Shadow) and Tanigaki Kenji (Big Brother), and the Action Team comprised of Donnie Yen Stunt Team for putting together set pieces that utilize space and mixed techniques to increase tension. One distinct sequence seems like an homage to Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), used wonderfully to convey the increasing dire circumstances of the situation, finding new and different ways to narrow the narrative field and raise dramatic tension at the same time. Of all the sequences, there’re two that truly engaged my imagination: one involving a motorcycle and the final confrontation. If you’ve watched enough action films and have learned the mechanical techniques utilized by directors to capture scenes, you’ll likely figure out exactly how one stunt with the motorcycle is accomplished, but you absolutely won’t care. If you’re like me, you’ll be filled with admiration for the technical prowess required, as well as the way the stunt is used to communicate the broiling feud between the two leads. In the final sequence, well, let’s just say that it’s relentless without being exhausting. There’s such a fine balance between dazzling stunt work and narrative-related movement that while you’ll wish it were longer than it is, you’ll know it’s about as perfect a throwdown as possible.
Where the film struggles is in the pacing of the story. It opens with Bong experiencing a nightmare of the incident that sets Bong and Ngo on oppositional paths. We don’t know how or why until after Ngo interferes with the sting and, by then, the more rote aspects of the drama have taken hold. Audiences who have seen a “past comes back to haunt them” cop story can deduce all the narrative beats to come, even if not to the letter. I suspect that writers Chan, Ryan Ling, and Tim Tong wanted to entrench the audience in the thriller aspects (who is Ngo and what does he want, while setting up Bong as haunted by his past), but the manner in which the script fills in the gaps, using extending flashbacks, undercuts the drama of the narrative. Yen is the bigger box office draw, sure, but Tse’s Ngo is an equal partner in the conflict of the film and the script outright states this. If the execution had been more linear, it would have provided a chance for the audience to invest in both characters more deeply and given the final confrontation more punch (no pun intended). Additionally, this would have cemented the deeper narrative themes where the film explores the notions of causality, how one decision can lead to a series of reactions (think dominoes falling) and how Bong and Ngo are shaped by their choices. On the one hand, this does allow for some deeper thought as to whether Ngo really is the bad guy of the film, a bold maneuver that has room to be taken seriously; while, on the other hand, it’s not explored enough or given evidence within Bong’s character for the exploration to be anything more than superficial. To say anything further would get into spoilers and this is a film best enjoyed if you don’t know everything.
If you have not experienced a Benny Chan film before, Raging Fire is a lovely introduction to the writer/director’s work. Looking at his filmography, Chan’s worked with Yen and Tse a number of times over both the actors’ careers and, having now seen this film, I can presume why they would return to him so often. The stunts aren’t just for the sake of having stunts, they move the narrative forward, offering up insights into who the characters are in the moment or offering a hint of where they will end up. Additionally, Chen doesn’t seem shy about making sure that the bad guys are well-rounded, almost on equal footing physically and narratively with the good guys. This equivalency is hard to accomplish and, when executed properly, enriches the complete experience. If Raging Fire is your first Benny Chan film, I suspect, like me, it won’t be your last.
International Premiere during the 2021 New York Asian Film Festival August 9th, 2021.
Canadian Premiere during the 2021 Fantasia International Film Festival August 10th, 2021.
In select U.S. theaters August 13th, 2021.
For more information, head to the official Well Go USA Raging Fire website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.