You can’t get too far into a conversation of Hong Kong action cinema without mentioning the name Benny Chan. The director of memorable titles including Who Am I? (1998), Invisible Target (2007), and Connected (2008) sadly passed away last year, and his final gift to fans of Hong Kong kinetics is finally here. Raging Fire pairs him with Donnie Yen for the first time, and along with a dynamic Nicholas Tse (already a four-time veteran of Chan films), they deliver an at-times blistering action/thriller exploring police corruption, violent regret, and all the heroic bloodshed you can handle.
Cheung Sung-pong (Yen) is a cop unwilling to bend a knee for bribery, payoffs, or pressure from above, and that includes lying under oath to protect a fellow officer. That straight-arrow mentality comes back to bite him in the ass when a ex-cop named Yau Kong-ngo (Tse) leaves prison with a chip on his shoulder and a taste for vengeance-fueled crime. Soon the streets are splashed in bullets and blood as Yau’s band of bandits seeks violent restitution, and only Cheung and an unprepared police force stand a chance of stopping them.
Raging Fire comes at a time when Hong Kong cinema has begun to feel the oppressive thumb of mainland Chinese censorship in very real ways, and to that end it may one of the last big action films from the region to challenge the perception of police officers for the near future. The themes explored in a script penned by Chan, Ryan Wai-chun Ling, and Yaoliang Tang see an honorable cop forced into dishonorable acts in the name of what’s right, and while Cheung is at no risk of becoming the equivalent of Dirty Harry he still skirts the morality line in engagingly dangerous ways.
Key to his struggle, beyond the imminent violent threat posed by Yao and his buddies, is a justice system that’s failing to deliver on its only real duty. Cheung works with the system he has, and as corruption from above threatens to tie his hands he’s forced to fight back with his feet. Okay, that metaphor got away from me, but Cheung must resort to violence to maintain order, and it’s a determination and honor that money can’t buy or stop. His journey is instead motivated by a clash between honor and brotherhood, and it’s a tenuous tightrope the likes of which Joseph Wambaugh’s famed cop characters from the 70s (The New Centurions, 1972; The Choirboys, 1977) never even imagined. Cheung sees that “thin blue line” and punches his way right through it.
For all of Raging Fire‘s various themes and thoughts on a failing system of justice and easily corruptible authorities, it’s an action movie at the end of the day — one hell of an action movie. Chan’s long been a filmmaker capable of capturing the precise chaos of Hong Kong’s kinetic action style, and he delivers some stellar set-pieces in his final bow that make his loss sting even harder. From a mall shootout to a church beatdown to an open-street sequence homaging Michael Mann’s Heat (1995), the film is never dull across its two hour running time.
Key to that is the physical effort put forth by the film’s leads, Yen and Tse. Yen may be nearing sixty-years-old and occasionally require a stunt double, but the man is still more than capable of ripping a series of blistering blows or sliding into an MMA-style takedown. He’s a master of numerous styles, but it’s his grappling and punching that have stood out from the action fray over the years with bangers like Kill Zone (2005), Flash Point (2007), and Special ID (2013). Add Raging Fire to that list for an epic mini-marathon of spectacular beatdowns. Tse is no slouch on the action front and showcases some sharp, lightning quick moves of his own whether he’s dealing out pain with a knife or his fists.
The pro-cop, pro-authority ideal is still present in Raging Fire in the form of expectations and a handful of rah rah speeches Cheung gives to his team. They’re meant to be taken seriously by the characters, and arguably by viewers, but the old adage about action speaking louder than words translates equally well to the screen. We all know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad, but there’s an undeniably gray line in between all the same. Chan’s film isn’t the first to explore it in some fashion, but it’s easily one of the more explosive and exciting.
The passing of any filmmaker is a loss for the arts, but Benny Chan’s death at the still-young age of fifty-eight stings hard for action fans. Some of his best are mentioned at the top of the page, a short list that Raging Fire can be added to, but there is plenty of joy and thrills to be found throughout his nearly two dozen films. Give this one a spin for a taste of what we’ve lost, and then dig deeper into his filmography. Action movies are life, and Hong Kong action is rarely less than a breath of fresh air.