Fire of Conscience -- Film Review

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HONG KONG -- In a front-runner for the title of loudest film of the year so far, "Fire of Conscience" tackles the heady subject of police corruption at street and institutional levels on the surface, but is really just an old school cops and robbers shoot 'em up most notable for a pair of highly inventive deaths. Director Dante Lam throws in everything but the kitchen sink in a story that somehow works in South Asian arms dealers, a Mainland bomber and drug dealing cop killers. Any real thought about the nature of duty and the law is swept aside for action, action, and more action-which is average for Lam but still superior to most.

Lam is making a case for himself as the Michael Mann of Hong Kong with his second high octane, noisy bit of law enforcement pornography in as many years. "Fire of Conscience" should attract the same distributors and specialty festivals that 2009's "Sniper" did, but it lacks the earlier film's sense of retro fun. Stars Leon Lai and Richie Jen could generate interest in theatrical release in Asia but the film's prospects beyond that are limited.

Man (an hirsute Lai) is a garden-variety detective with a dead wife and a penchant for brutalizing suspects. While looking into the murder of a prostitute, he hooks up with former narcotics investigator Kee (Jen), who needs his help finding a petty thug that stole a cell phone from his partner-right before he got pulverized by a car.

Once he finds the thug it becomes apparent that Kee has his own suspect relations problems, and may not be the force's poster boy everyone thinks he is. Meanwhile, Man's partner Cheung-on becomes a suspect in the prostitute's death and eventually drags Man into a conspiracy to cover up the fact that he saw the woman the night she died. Somehow this all points to a crew of thieves and a Chinese bomb specialist -- whose wife is being held hostage -- with designs on pulling off an evidence van heist in the middle of the day in crowded, downtown Hong Kong.

That's the tip of the narrative iceberg and everything else strains credibility; hard as it may be to believe, the convoluted story does clarify itself by the final reel. But Lam and writer Jack Ng heap more misfortune on its leads than is probably necessary and draw attention away from "Fire's" strongest elements, which are the gunplay and Jen as the heavy. We learn Man's wife was murdered-before a uterine tumor could kill her. At one point his higher-ups tell Man he's suspended, but he goes out and solves a crime anyway (natch) without any consequences. Man thinks his department has a mole, but it's never explained who it is or how they find him. Why Kee's fiancee is even there is a mystery. She contributes about as much as a houseplant.

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Jen is quickly becoming Hong Kong's go-to guy for ambiguous heroes after breaking into the industry as a romantic comedy lead and it turns out he's Lam's greatest asset. While far from nuanced, Jen manages to infuse Kee with some of the shadiness of the film's visuals. "Fire of Conscience" is technically strong (and did we mention loud?) and its saturated, garishly hued images add a certain gritty finish that gives the unsavory story a suitably skeevy tone.

Venue: Hong Kong International Film Festival Filmart/Gala
Sales: Media Asia Distribution
Production company: Visual Capture
Cast: Leon Lai, Richie Jen, Wang Baoqiang, Liu Kai-chi, Wilfred Lau, Charles Ying, Vivian Hsu
Director: Dante Lam
Screenwriter: Jack Ng
Executive producer: John Chong
Producer: Candy Leung, Dante Lam
Director of photography: Charlie Lam, Tse Chung To
Production designer: Alfred Yau
Music: Henry Lai
Editor: Chan Kei-hop
No rating, running time -- 104 minutes
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