Sunday, August 8, 2021

Raging Fire (2021)

In a final swan song only director Benny Chan could deliver, Raging Fire is a quintessential modern Hong Kong cinematic action experience, powered by an incredible dual lead performance and propelled by dynamic and explosive action set pieces. 


Director: Benny Chan

Notable Cast: Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Jeana Ho, Ray Lui, Patrick Tam, Ben Lam, Chris Collins, Ken Lo, Simon Yam


During the final action sequence, an epiphany came to me. The culminating chess game between the two leads of the film, Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse, erupts into a full Michael Mann street war. On one side, cops in Kevlar vests and tactical gear. They storm the streets of Hong Kong, determined to disrupt the burglary in progress. On the other side, sharply suited villains armed to the teeth with automatic rifles and grenades aiming to make off with a significant heist, and nothing - not even an army of well-armed police officers, will stand in their way. It’s an explosive set-piece, erupting in rollicking explosions, showers of glass, and concussive blasts of gunfire where no character is safe and the tension has built to snarling intensity. 


That’s not the epiphany. That’s just the setup. 


It’s when the two leads of the film break off to settle the score one on one that the epiphany rang true. In a fashion only fitting to producer and director Benny Chan, the standoff occurs in the middle of a church under construction with the color filters of stained glass and the dust drywall construction adding a slight artistic touch to the event. Donnie Yen. Nicholas Tse. Two gods in the world of Hong Kong cinema. Characters intertwined in fated balance, where one event - told in flashbacks - could have easily meant their destinies to be reversed. A note that a bloodied Yau, played with a devilish fervor by Tse, spits directly at Cheung, the always just and sturdy Yen. 


Under different circumstances, the two stars sharing moments of intimacy to their ‘two sides of the same coin’ existence would be titled ‘Clash of the Titans’ in any marketing campaign. Their presence in the film justifies its arrival on a base level. Their moments together crackle like the sparks that jettison from the explosions and gunfire that rains around them. Even when the film is pitching a narrative quite familiar to any action aficionado, running through the tropes of classic Hong Kong crime films like SPL or Exiled, their performances ground the experience. Yen is grounded and determined. Tse is a wild card with mopped hair and wide-eyed expressions. It’s enough to warrant any viewing, really. 


The epiphany is that Raging Fire is a religious experience, practically a closing prayer with Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse as anointed theologians. It’s a cinematic reminder to audiences of the waning era of Hong Kong crime capers that were modernized by the likes of Johnnie To, Wilson Yip, and the director of this film, Benny Chan. 


However, the sudden passing of producer and director Benny Chan has loomed over the film. A heartfelt dedication and behind-the-scenes footage that plays out over the credits signifies the legacy of his work in the industry. Chan meant a lot to me as a fan of action cinema. His death rang loud and sharply. I cried during the credits of Raging Fire. The iconic director, often criticized for his style over substance approach to action filmmaking, gave us modern classics like A Moment of Romance, Invisible Target, and The White Storm amongst a slew of others. Raging Fire feels like a high note for him to leave with us. It’s stylish as hell, benefiting from his usual visual flair and disregard for narrative fluidity as long as it struck a ‘cool’ moment or two. It’s a final testament to a miracle worker that could take any mediocre script and make it thrilling and refreshing. 


As his final film, it’s notable that Chan directs the ever-living shit out of Raging Fire. The script, which focuses on a group of ex-police officers turned vigilante militia and led by Tse being hunted by their old friend and coworker, Yen, is not anything new for fans of the era. The classic good cop, bad cop is a staple of Hong Kong crime cinema and Raging Fire pounds those tropes like bullets popping into bullet proof vests. There is a dynamic look to the film that leans into the tropes too, with the usual amount (read: a lot) of slow motion and lots of camera tricks in the action to disorient the audience a bit without losing the focus. While the plot may not thrill as it runs through the motions, the direction does and Chan proves once again why he was such a spirited wild card. 


Naturally, as with any film with this combination of director and onscreen talent, it’s the action that makes Raging Fire live up to its title. There’s a modern sense of militaristic gunplay on hand here throughout, including a stellar abandoned mall firefight in the first act, but when the film balances between the gun work and hand-to-hand combat it’s ferocious. A fun secondary side plot gives us a Tse vs Ken Lo sequence and the previously mentioned finale ties in all of the film’s lively characters with action that parallels their personalities and the themes of the film. It’s honestly one of Benny Chan’s best when it comes to tying it together. 

Raging Fire will serve as a reminder of the many talents of its creative forces. The unfortunate passing of its director is felt in every frame and it is bittersweet to see the icon deliver one of his best as his last. For those unfamiliar with his work, Raging Fire is also a fantastic place to start - as it maximizes its actors, the action, and visual pop with relative ease and surprising depth. If you get a chance to see this one, see it as soon as possible. 


Benny Chan’s legacy and cinematic flame lives on with Raging Fire. Let it never be diminished. Amen. 


Written By Matt Reifschneider

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