Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Sky on Fire (2016)

Director: Ringo Lam

Notable Cast: Daniel Wu, Zhang Ruoyun, Joseph Chang, Zhang Jingchu, Amber Kuo, Fan Guang-yao, Wayne Lai, Philip Keung, Cheung Siu-fai, Ying Batu

Despite mixed reviews, Ringo Lam’s comeback action thriller Wild City was still a decent return that showcased a director who was trying to blend his classic Hong Kong action chops with a slightly more modern approach. When it was announced that his next film would be Sky on Fire, going with a title scheme that would indicate a throwback to previous films from the golden age of Hong Kong cinema like City on Fire, Prison on Fire, or School on Fire, there is obviously a lot of expectations that come with that. Partner it with some solid marketing and Daniel Wu to anchor the lead, this film had momentum to go with those initial expectations too. So perhaps it’s not all that shocking that Sky on Fire comes off as disappointing in the end. Sure, this is a film that attempts to recreate the Ringo Lam style of yesteryear with its plentiful action and design, but it’s a film that ultimately rings off as a hollow recreation rather than a film that belongs in the same echelon. There are moments, sparks if you will, where one can see it start to reclaim the style, but it doesn’t have enough emotional resonance and effective narrative flow to make it work.

When the head security guard (Daniel Wu) at a massive medical company’s headquarters finds himself on the trail of a group of thieves trying to steal information and material for a new stem cell project, he finds himself at odds with his own morals. This is because he becomes unsure of the intent of either side, his corporate employers or the seemingly humane and justified cause of the thieves. With his life now riding on the line, he must make a choice that will have drastic effects.

His bedside manner is somber. So is my movie watching manner for this one.
In many ways, the foundation of Sky on Fire should be one that works. There are pieces to the whole that are throwbacks to great era of late 80s Hong Kong cinema. The hero is a devastated soul unsure of his place in the world, the use of corporate evil versus well intentioned thieves, and even the way that the action lays itself out – bursting in intense sequences of violence and gritty moments. While some of this comes off as cliché or over the top at times, the intent is meant to be one of a throwback nature and for a fan like myself that can’t be ignored. Some of this is held up by the execution. The action is crisp and realistic, although the use of the grimy digital Michael Mann look of some of the car sequences doesn’t do it any favors, and Daniel Wu carries a lot of the emotional weight of the film through a strong performance that connects. If anything, this is where Sky on Fire succeeds.

The problem, however, is that the rest of Sky on Fire doesn’t resonate after the fact. The entire focus of the plot, a sort of anti-corporation, anti-big pharma stance, is too heavy handed and feels forced onto the audience in an over the top manner. Both sides of the fence, the evil face of corruption with its slick building and expensive price tag and the rag tag, but passionate thieves out to take back what’s best for the people, is just hammered down so hard that its message is lost in the effort. It doesn’t help that a lot of the narrative comes out muddled in the process too. The first act is plagued with useless flashbacks and there are way too many underdeveloped secondary plots that undermine the efforts of the main plot. Too many characters and too many relationships are left hanging that the potentially (and emotionally) impactful elements of the film do end up feeling hollow.

"Stop in the name of Wu!"
Sky on Fire is the kind of film where the intent is much greater than the actual execution. The action is solid and Daniel Wu brings his A game, but the script and narrative structure cripples a lot of the better aspects of the film and it rings out as a massively missed opportunity. It already had massive expectations to fulfill with its throwback ideas and there is a respectability to its intentions, but for those looking for that Hong Kong action flashback, this is not that film. It has moments of being that film with its hero and action, but in this modern age it tries to be bigger than that and it falters in accomplishing it. It does make one wonder though, would we have been more forgiving if the title hadn’t have created such comparisons even before the movie started?

Written By Matt Reifschneider

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