NYAFF 2014 runs June 27-July 14 in New York City. Follow all of our coverage here.
Hong Kong action films often come with two promises. There will be action, and it will most probably be ludicrous. Smart screenplays are always appreciated of course, but there’s nothing wrong with a fun, creatively violent action flick that entertains in its sincere goofiness. That balance between the ridiculous and the fun is important though when the film is also trying to be serious.
Firestorm is trying to be serious, and those intentions constantly clash with the physics-ignorant action sequences, frequently dumb writing and the near-constant display of unimpressive CGI.
A team of professional criminals is making a mockery of the police department through a series of daytime heists that leave bloodshed and massive property damage in their wake. Inspector Lui (Andy Lau) is a rule-follower, but he quickly learns that “proper” police-work may not be enough to stop the violence in the streets of Hong Kong. He decides to play dirty out of necessity, but the bad guys are far more experienced at the game.
The film opens with Tou’s (Gordon Lam) release from prison and into the arms of a girlfriend (Yao Chen) who makes him swear that he’s leaving his criminal past behind him. He’s a wee bit of a liar though and quickly finds himself back on the wrong side of the law, but a kink in his life of crime arrives in the form of an unlikely accident. He crashes his car into Liu in the middle of a stand-off, and it’s revealed that the two men knew each other long ago.
Lui’s quest for justice involves not only his own team of dedicated police officers but also Tou’s loose desire to find legitimacy in his post-prison life. The man they’re after, Cao (Hu Jun), is thought to be behind the heists, but the system makes it difficult for Lui to pin anything on the man. At least it does until Lui breaks a few of the system’s rules.
This is writer/director Alan Yuen‘s third feature film as director, but it’s his first behind the camera of a big, loud action extravaganza. He has experience scripting them though including a few Jackie Chan vehicles and the Cellular remake, Connected. Why none of that experience on quality action films rubbed off here is anyone’s guess, but a handful of effective scenes aside Firestorm is a mess both on the page and on the screen.
The core of the script — a good cop forced to go bad to stop the true bad guys — is simple enough, but moral superiority is never this police department’s problem. Instead it’s their incredible ineptitude that prevents them time and again from catching the bad guys and preventing collateral damage. Good god the collateral damage — the cops’ action directly and indirectly lead to so much carnage in this film that they could probably apply for membership in the Evil League of Evil on “accidental” accomplishments alone. They repeatedly come close to catching the villains only to be dramatically outgunned and out-maneuvered.
The script also spends too much time following two ex-cons, men trying to do better this time around, and milking them both for unnecessary drama. Worse, it’s mostly unfulfilling drama. The only real exception is a scene involving the con turned informant and his autistic daughter. It takes a surprisingly dark turn — one of several here — but the intended emotional effect is short-lived.
The CGI artists deserved top billing here alongside Lau, but to be clear it’s for the quantity of their work and not the quality. Not a single action scene is allowed to pass without an abundance of CGI assistance (and occasionally some obvious wire-work too). Explosions are enhanced, gunfire is inundated with tracers and environments are modified with occasional cartoonish abandon. A mid-movie fall from several stories up is just one of many clues that science, biology and gravity are being ignored here, and the third act blowout confirms it. The result is a film that feels at times like a video game cinematic with the player-controlled character of Lui strutting through it all with little more than superficial effect.
Realism in action films is far from a necessity, but these sequences just don’t work in conjunction with the film’s attempts at a serious tone. There are some grim happenings here, at least one of them close to being terribly heartfelt, but stupidity and a playful sense of kinetics prevent any of it from displaying anything resembling weight or power. Ultimately, Firestorm has a strong lead in Lau and looks good in snapshots, but the moving images aren’t nearly as compelling.
The Upside: Andy Lau is always a good sport; surprisingly dark at times
The Downside: Horribly scripted; cops are wholly inept; abundance of CGI and wire work
On the Side: This is only Alan Yuen’s third film as director in twenty years.