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sꭷ (1987)
City on Fire

Reviewed by: ewaffle
Date: 02/01/2021
Summary: Hyperkenetic crime drama

There are a lot of reasons to watch “City on Fire” in addition to its iconic status as the template for nihilistic, everyone dead at the end Hong Kong police dramas—and incidentally as the inspiration for “Reservoir Dogs”, Quentin Tarantino’s much inferior testosterone-fest. It starts in the opening credits—the title card that reads “Introducing Roy Cheung and Carrie Ng”. Roy Cheung was excellent as the young police inspector on the make, strutting around in his tailored uniforms and superior air, trying to wrest control of an anti-crime operation from tired old Suen Yuet. The young Carrie Ng is monstrously beautiful; as Chow Yun-Fat’s on again off again fiancé she doesn’t have much of a part but she is memorable due to the way the camera loves her.

Chow Yun-Fat was in the beginning of possibly the greatest run of amazing roles and superb performances by any movie actor ever. From “A Better Tomorrow” in 1986 through “The Killer” in 1989 he worked with the top directors in Hong Kong and created some of the most memorable and emblematic characters ever to be projected onto a screen. Here his undercover cop Ko Chow, a man who has lost his moral compass and who simply wants to get out of an impossible situation, is very much in line with his other great anti-heroes of the period.

Hong Kong itself looked tacky, flashy and impermanent. No shots of the harbor or from the Peak here; the skyline might as well not existed. The camera stayed earthbound with crowded streets and gaudy neon serving as a fitting backdrop to the poorly planned and sloppily executed robberies. Police managers were interested more in defending their turf or carving out new areas to control than in stopping crime or helping the men and women under their command. Senior commanders wanted to stay far away from any of the messy parts of policing and tried to ignore the constant arguments (and occasional fistfights) in station houses. Policemen on the beat were there mainly to be shot dead by robbers.

“City on Fire” is a hyperkinetic crime drama in which peace officers and the criminal underworld are inextricably linked in webs of lies, guilt and fear with ultimately little to separate them

Reviewer Score: 8

Reviewed by: STSH
Date: 10/30/2010
Summary: Scorching !

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: MrBooth
Date: 03/09/2006
Summary: 9/10 - one of the classics

I first saw CITY ON FIRE as part of a double bill, directly following RESERVOIR DOGS. In retrospect this was definitely the wrong order to show the films in, as RD set up certain expectations for COF that it could not and would not meet - specifically that the two films would have _any_ similarities outside the plot and some specific shots. The two films are very different in tone and focus, and coming right after RESERVOIR it's inevitable that COF would feel dated and a bit naive. If you go in looking for pop culture referencing cooler-than-thou gangsters and black humour, COF will certainly disappoint. What it does offer is a gritty, nihilistic and frankly depressing crime story and a fantastic Chow Yun Fat performance.

It's interesting to compare Chow's character in CITY ON FIRE to Tequila in Hard Boiled - the two are almost polar opposite visions of undercover cops, and it illustrates the difference between John Woo and Ringo Lam very well. Tequila is a cop who lives purely to bring bad guys to justice, his single-minded pursuit having no concern for his own life or that of innocent bystanders and colleagues, as long as the bad guys meet justice. In contrast, Chow Ko is a reluctant undercover who is haunted by his betrayal of the criminals he has befriended and then turned in, who really just wants to have a normal life with his fiance (Carrie Ng in her first lead role). Woo's film paints his world in extremeties of black and white, whilst Lam's world is much greyer and murkier.

What HARD BOILED and CITY ON FIRE have in common is that they showcase Chow Yun Fat at his charismatic best, giving the kind of performance that made him an Asian superstar. His character runs through a wide range of emotions, and Chow makes them all work. Danny Lee also gives one of his better performances in this film, playing on the opposite side of the law for once in his career :p

Andrew Lau served as cinematographer the film, and the result is suitably slick and stylish, though the film is obviously meant to be a lot grittier than a Woo film, so there are far less shots of gratuitous slow motion and spurious religious symbolism. The action in the film is also a lot grittier - just raw pain and suffering, with no attempt to make it look "beautiful". There's no question that HARD BOILED is better as an action film, but that's not what CITY ON FIRE is trying to be.

I can't really offer any criticisms of the film - a great story, script, direction & acting. It doesn't have the witty dialogue or "hipness" of RESERVOIR DOGS, or the melodrama and adrenalin of HARD BOILED, but if you're not expecting it to be (and comparing it with) a film that it's not, it's a very satisfying piece of Ringo Lam, and one of the HK classics.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: Gaijin84
Date: 06/18/2005
Summary: Solid Chow Yun Fat film

Probably best known for being a huge influence on Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, City on Fire is one of Ringo Lam's "Fire" series of films (Prison on Fire, School on Fire, etc.) starring Chow Yun-Fat as an undercover cop in too deep. Yun-Fat plays Ko Chow, who has become disinterested in his job and feels as though he is constantly put in danger because of others mistakes. He infiltrates a gang of robbers, and allies himself with their leader Lee Fu (Danny Lee) by providing them guns for their robberies. During one of their jobs, Lee Fu saves Chow's life, setting up the moral dilemna for Chow between his job and the man he owes his life to. Throw into the mix a tulmultous relationship with his girlfriend, and you have a man ready to snap. The film follows Chow as he not only tries to help the cops bust the gang, but save Lee Fu from the authorities.

City on Fire is a hard movie to criticize, being that it isn't a poorly made or boring film. Unfortunately, there are no great features either, which leads the film to being strictly mediocre. Chow Yun-Fat is solid in his role as Ko Chow, but his supporting cast don't bring enough personality to the film to make you care about Chow's plight. Dannly Lee, as the loyal member of the villains, seems like too nice of a guy to be a criminal and the other henchmen are simply bland thugs who hardly seem menacing. I never really felt as though Chow was in serious trouble, and therefore the side plot of Chow's rocky relationship with his girlfriend Hung (Carrie Ng) becomes more interesting than the undercover operation. A decent film, but there's not enough to make it stand out from the crowd.


Reviewer Score: 6

Reviewed by: mrblue
Date: 09/19/2003

A reluctant undercover cop (Chow) is forced to complete one last job -- infiltrate a gang of jewel thieves led by Lee. Things get complicated when the cop and criminal become friends as they head off to pull the gang's biggest job ever.

City on Fire is probably most famous in the West as the movie that provided some of the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. Some people have said that Reservoir Dogs is a total rip-off of City on Fire, but really Reservoir Dogs only shares some similarities; only one shot in Reservoir Dogs is totally swiped, where Mr. White blasts the cop car.

Unlike the fast-talking, pop-culture referencing gangsters of Reservoir Dogs, the characters in City on Fire are somber and serious. Even though there is some comic relief when Chow tries to sweet-talk his girlfriend (Carrie Ng in her first role), the movie (like many of Ringo Lam's other films) has a dark and bleak tone to it. Most of the action in the movie occurs not through the use of guns (though the finale has its share of bloodshed), but from the confrontations between Chow and the various people in his life (as well as his own inner demons).

A good film probably worth watching (for US fans, at least) for the curiosity factor alone. It's a well-made police/gangster drama that set the tone for many films that followed it -- it's just too bad that it hasn't aged as well as some of Ringo Lam's other work, though it still provides a good night's entertainment.

Reviewed by: balstino
Date: 05/02/2003
Summary: Intense and Gripping. Excellent.

This is the only film to have the intensity of Hard Boiled. Amazingly, it does this without none stop action, although those few scenes are great!. The music is very atmospheric and Chow Yun Fat is as good as I have ever seen him. A must own.

Reviewed by: pjshimmer
Date: 02/25/2003
Summary: Excellent movie

like every movie to come out of HK, City on Fire sucks at the beginning but turns things around as it moves along. I didn't care about the movie at all until the end, by which time it had become an all-emotional phenomenon. It was very difficult to watch the outcome, because one knew it would trigger the utmost of emotions. Luckily, the difficult moment isn't as
hard to swallow as I could imagine.

I think we have a winner here. City on Fire is a well-made movie with an involving focus.


Reviewed by: Chungking_Cash
Date: 01/26/2003

"City on Fire" the first entry in a quartet of director Ringo Lam's "...on Fire" films focuses on the dismal state of Hong Kong, a society overrun by crime and violence. In a radical departure from his Golden Age aesthetic Danny Lee helms a group of jewel thieves who Chow Yun-fat -- a forlorn undercover cop -- has lost himself within. Western audiences often cite this film as the inspiration for "Reservoir Dogs" Quentin Tarantino's 99-minute exercise in male posturing.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: Inner Strength
Date: 01/12/2002
Summary: Ringo Lams CLASSIC

Well, what can I say! This has got to be Ringo Lams best movie ever. The movie that also inspired the US movie 'Resoviour Dogs.

A movie about a cop (played by CHow Yun Fat) who goes undercover to catch a syndicate of armed robbers. A good story which all comes together perfectly, which is rare in a lot of Hong Kong movies.

This movie is far from boring (even though someone else said it was), it's set at a slow pace, but it's done like that on purpose, it's not an action movie, although the few action scenes are quite dramatic. Ringo Lam chose the main characters perfectly, Chow Yun Fat & Danny Lee (who have been teamed up on a few occasions before and after too) are quite good I think, they work well together, and naturally, Ringo Lam made it all happen.

Rating (of 5): 4

(This rating is based on the year & genre, so don't think it's based as a comparison on new releases etc.)

Reviewed by: Sydneyguy
Date: 05/08/2001
Summary: Ummm.............

I was bored watching this!! The ending is where Quentin Tarentino got his idea for Reseviour dogs and you can see it!! A big let down to me!!


Reviewed by: nomoretitanic
Date: 04/16/2001
Summary: Go Ringo

I actually have a copy of QT's Resevoir Dogs screenplay. In the beginning he thanked a bunch of people and I remember seeing Chow YunFat's name in it. So he did, very indirectly thanked/ admitted his influence. Personally I thought Dogs made too big a deal--it was a movie he made to showed how much he liked the other genres: Scorsese/ Coppolla gangster flicks, Hong Kong gangster flicks, Blaxpoitation...etc. Good thing he was a video clerk in the 70's and 80's--hate to see a major American director paying tributes to The Young and Dangerous movies.

Okay with QT aside, let's talk about the movie. I loved it. The chemistry between Chow and his girlfriend, his superiors, and Danny Lee, are impeccable. The car chase is really good, since it actually serves some purpose in the storyline. The twists and turns here aren't too far-fetched but I do not find them to be predictable. This movie has a soul, a general compassion towards almost all of its characters. A lot of good stuff here, but the best part of the movie is still the relationships and the chemistry these actors bring out among themselves, along with Ringo's screenplay.

Couple of thugs/ cannon fodders are a little too one-dimensional. The "evil cop" that's been sooooo overplayed has a substantial amount of screentime. The movie seems to blame all the problems encountered in this movie on this "evil cop" which I find very unconvincing. Another complaint is the near-sadistic way the movie treats Chow Yun-Fat. Chow Yun-Fat seems to be doing alright balancing between his exterior nonchalance and his inner struggle between his job and his girlfriend and loyalty and honor--but the movie has to go out of its way to torture him during the interrogation and slo-mo the painful process of duct-taping the tape recorder to his stomach. I want to feel for Chow on his own merit, not by watching him getting the crap kicked out of in a sequence that's almost gratuitous to the plot.

Sounds like a lot of complaints for a film to love. But the actors have really really elevated the movie. Good job. Props.

One thing I didn't get is the color-name thing. Maybe that's because I don't speak Cantonese, but in my version they go by the names of "Fu", "Joe", "Ko Chow"...etc. Where are the colors?

Reviewed by: dragyn
Date: 03/04/2001
Summary: Reservoir Dogs One

"City On Fire" takes the age-old story of a jewellery heist gone wrong, and adds a new level: it gives the central chracters depth, and presents everything with a strong underlying anti-violence message. Thankfully, it gives no political message, and it glamourises neither cops nor robbers, but portrays both sides of the law with equal strengths and weaknesses.

The action isn't great, though - and there's not much of it. If you're looking for a John-Woo-type blood splattering masterpiece - then go watch one. This certainly isn't one. But "City On Fire" does possess a charm of its own; the plot is involving, and the chracters become increasingly more likeable as the movie progresses. While I don't think "city On Fire" lives up to its rumoured masterpiece status, it is still an immensely enjoyable and emotionally envolving film. And it has Chow Yun-Fat in, and he can act (almost)anything and make you wanna watch.

I also feel compelled to add a piece on my views regarding Quentin Tarantino copying "City On Fire" when he made "Reservoir Dogs". The extent to which he ripped the movie off is scarcely believeable: the plot is almost identical, and some of the dialoge is a carbon copy of that in "City On Fire". Sure, there are a few elements in "Dogs" that didn't appear in "City" and vice versa, but on the whole the similarity is stunning. As for whose version of the movie is better, well - I think I have to say "City On Fire is far superior, for several reasons.
1) Ringo Lam made "City On Fire first, which means he is original, something Tarantino can't often claim to be. In fact, I argue that Tarantino's talent lies not in originality, but rather in his ability to tell stories in a non-linear fashion.
2) Ringo Lam gives his characters far more depth than Quentin Tarantino does. I felt T's chracters were in fact rather wooden.
3)I dislike Tarantino's shock-tactic use of extreme violence, without an underlying message or emotional level to back it up. Don't get me wrong - I like violent films, but I find soulless violence hard to watch; I get bored.

All in all, I give "City On Fire": 7/10

Reviewed by: Andy Woollam
Date: 02/15/2001

City on Fire is about an undercover cop who infiltrates some jewel thieves. I think that this movie was better than Reservoir Dogs because that movie just went on and on. Chow Yun Fat won the Hong Kong Film Award for best actor and I think Ringo Lam won the Directing award aswell. I have this movie on DVD and the subtitles are horrible they move to fast and at times they don't make sense. Sun Yueh is brilliant as inspector Lau!

Reviewed by: TequilaYuen
Date: 10/06/2000
Summary: One of the best films ever ripped off.

Ok, tarantino has the dialogue. But no one can doubt how blatant a rip off "Reservoir Dogs" was from this film. Tarantino's film is broken to basics and uses stylistic violence, Lam's films is a police action fare (he's the HK master). What I love about Lam's films are the realism, whereas John Woo (my fave) is highly stylized. All that considered, City On Fire is the tragic story of Ko Chow, A HK undercover cop who blurs the line between right & wrong, and loyalty while working undercover to bring down a jewlery robbing syndicate. A word of note for DVD fans, the picture quality of this DVD and sound quality are a perfect transfer! It looks and sounds fantastic!

Reviewed by: resdog781
Date: 08/23/2000

an excellent plot combined with a pretty sloppy production gets a sideways thumb from me on this one.

Danny Lee is the head of a robbery ring, and Chow Yun-Fat is the undercover cop out to bust him in this film that was the inspiration for "Reservoir Dogs", right down to the relationship between Chow's "Mr. Orange" type character and Lee's "Mr. White" type character, and Lee's dispatching of a police squad car with the two-fisted guns. Tarantino just took this movie and added the black-and-white suits from ABT2 and some snappy dialogue about Madonna and 70's music.

Not a whole lot of action in this one, but the plot is the real champ here. Too bad it wasn't better from the technical standpoint. I liked "Reservoir Dogs" much better.

Reviewed by: SUPERCOP
Date: 12/27/1999
Summary: Exceptional crime drama.....

Ringo Lam crafted this superb action drama, which is best known in the west for inspiring Quentin Tarantino's directorial debut Reservoir Dogs. Chow Yun-fat bagged the best actor trophy for his emotionally charged performance as the undercover cop unsure of his loyalties, while Danny Lee is equally impressive as the honorable thief whom Chow befriends. Lam directs these actors with an incredible sense of pace and visual style, courtesy of cinematographer Andrew Lau Wai-keung. Another triumph for Ringo Lam, and provides the stepping stone for a long line of exceptional 'On Fire' films.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/21/1999

Ringo Lam's tale of an undercover cop (Chow Yun Fat) getting involved in a bloody gang of robbers was heavily ripped off by Tarantino, but Reservoir Dogs is a much better film than City On Fire. Slow moving and sloppily made, but worth watching just to see which parts Tarantino knicked.


[Reviewed by Andrej Blazeka]

Reviewed by: hokazak
Date: 12/09/1999

Pre-Killer film w/ Chow Yun Fat's and Danny Lee's roles reversed(in comparison to the former). The end of this film was obviously the inspiration for Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

The movie that must be seen to understand the Quentin Tarantino phenomenon. it's a meandering, mostly conventional Hong Kong cop drama which builds up to a bloody climax. Tarantino's 'Reservoir Dogs' version, which takes the best bits - mostly the last 15 minutes or so - is much more focused and street smart. In the original, we get to see much more of the protagonists' day-to-day lives; in 'Reservoir Dogs', we get monologues about Madonna. By showing the cameraderie among the gangsters (using techniques from Scorsese), rather than their private social circles, Tarantino escalates the tension effectively. But this chopping and changing is no more than the role of a good editor - something which is desperately lacking from several otherwise fine Hong Kong films. Anyway, it could be argued that Hong Kong audiences enjoy a certain kind of banality - say, Chow Yun Fat horsing around with his girlfriend - and Tarantino merely knows how to recast it for Western tastes. Either way, the story is the real winner; no wonder Tarantino wanted to present it as his own.

[Reviewed by Iain Sinclair]