Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Never mind that heartthrobs Leon Lai and Richie Ren seem to have been miscast as hardboiled city cops, each of whom have issues with morality and authority, or the fact that there is little mystery in this cat-and-mouse crime thriller.
Hong Kong director Dante Lam’s latest film is concerned with the daily lives of police officers who have to deal with ultra-violent criminals with a penchant for guns and bombs, and for all its faults, storywise, it is a gripping ride from start to finish.
There are logical leaps to be sure. Why, for instance, would a bunch of desperados conduct an arms trade in the private room of a crowded Cantonese restaurant? (The answer, of course, is so that the director can stage a tense smoke-filled shootout with bullets and grenades galore.)
And why would one cop, upon discovering the treachery of another, call him on his mobile phone to set up a meeting, thereby tipping him off and enabling him to stage an attempted getaway?
These questions may have nagged more if not for the fact that it matters little how Fire of Conscience – a rather strange English title for a film known literally in Chinese as ‘Fire Dragon’ – falls into some filmmaking traps; the film has enough gritty action to please even the most hardcore action fan.
Lai plays a hardened police investigator, Manfred, who is known for his rough-house tactics. A traumatic event in his life, explained in flashback, has caused him to sprout unkempt facial hair – always the sign of a tortured soul – and made him a seemingly soulless, yet effective, cop.
The case of a murdered prostitute, as well as the death of a police informant, causes Manfred to cross paths with Kee (Ren), a seemingly resourceful inspector with the narcotics branch.
When Manfred, who is haunted by his personal demons that cause him to stalk public trams, digs deeper into the prostitute case, encountering a formidable suspected cop-killer who repeatedly escapes police custody, he finds Kee curiously hovering around his investigation.
The motivations and allegiances of the major players are revealed long before the film’s conclusion, for reasons unknown, thereby forgoing the tension that keeping the audience guessing would have wrought.
Still, there is much to admire about the film, in spite of the middling performances of the leading stars.
It may seem a strange quality to laud, but the remarkable sound design – something fans of Oscar-winner The Hurt Locker may appreciate – on Lam’s latest cop actioner after Sniper and Beast Stalker (both 2008) is something to behold.
The realistic and crisp sounds of bullets embedding into a car windscreen, or a bomb going off, or of two combatants falling through glass, helps to really set the tone and atmosphere for this picture. And while the film goes overboard with blood at times, that doesn’t take away from its enjoyability.
There are shades of Infernal Affairs and Pride and Glory here, and even though the good cop-bad cop musings on right and wrong, as well as fate and fatalism, may not inspire, this is a technically superb film, with the surprising ability to transcend its flaws and excesses.
Don’t let story weaknesses, Ren’s stiffness, and Lai’s recent affinity for a bad facial hair, carried over from his nearly unrecognisable turn in Bodyguards and Assassins, distract you from this fact.
About Yong Shu Chiang
Yong Shu Chiang, otherwise known as SC, is a freelance editor and writer. He reviewed movies for Juice magazine when he was in college, and was the resident film reviewer for Today Newspaper from 2003 to 2005. He has also reviewed movies for Prime Time Morning on Channel NewsAsia.
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