Firestorm (Fung Bo): Film Review

Ceaseless displays of choreographed firepower undermines what could have been either an undercover thriller or a human drama about justifying ends with desperate means.

Backed by Hong Kong film veterans Bill Kong and Andy Lau, first-time helmer Alan Yuen's crime thriller sees a police inspector go to extremes to battle a gang of robbers.

Guillermo del Toro did it earlier this year with Pacific Rim, and MichaelBay will try with the fourth Transformers installment in 2014. But with Firestorm, Hong Kong filmmakers have proven themselves to be just as adept at blowing their home city to smithereens onscreen as their foreign counterparts. Living up to its title,Alan Yuen's directorial debut is a relentlessly fiery pyrotechnical spectacle, climaxing with a protracted heavy-artillery shootout that has Hong Kong's central business district literally caving in on itself.

While it will be a critic's dream to interpret this as a metaphor for the capitalism being laid waste – and it's not really that farfetched of an effort, given how Yuen also deploys an incoming typhoon (which provides the film with its Chinese title) as the symbol of the mayhem to come – Firestorm couldn't be read as anything more than just an action thriller. In fact, even the plot itself is nearly entirely submerged by car crashes, gunfights and explosions, as the all-around deafening chaos jettisons hopes of the viewer empathizing with the protagonists' struggle to reconcile their unscrupulous deeds with their good intentions.

The film's co-producerAndy Lau reprises the role of the po-faced but internally-conflicted police inspector, which he played to perfection in Infernal Affairs, while his co-star (and erstwhile perennial supporting actor) Gordon Lam delivers a standout performance in perhaps his most prominent role to date. Firestorm – which is released in both 3D and 2D formats – should still provide enough interest to bring its backer Bill Kong of Edko Filmsanother hit police film. Still, Yuen and his producers have missed an opportunity to bring to the fore a calibrated contemplation about moral ambivalence in a city quickly losing its bearings – something which underpins the commercially successful Cold War last year.

In the film, the good guys are hapless and exasperated from the beginning: a team of police officers are pushed to drinking and divorce as they toil in vain to secure evidence against a group of robbers running rampant around the city with their carefully choreographed heists. What's bugging them is the need to do things by the book, as one of them jokes how they used to easily be able to get a confession out of an innocent man, let alone someone whose complicity in a crime is clearly visible.

It's a comment which serves as the harbinger of the moral dilemma that the film's major protagonist, Inspector Lui (Lau), would soon have to face. A thoroughly disciplined man who lives and dies by his strict adherence to rules and regulations – this is someone who would insist in dumping a finished lunchbox in a garbage bin even during a stakeout – his principle is slowly eaten away as his targets, led by the showboat kingpin Cao Nan (Hu Jun), continue to elude the law with their canny efforts in removing all evidence which will have them indicted for the crimes committed.

Among those who taunts Lui is the ex-con To Shing-bong (Lam), a childhood friend of the detective who happens to be working for Cao. Resisting Lui's repeated attempts to badger him into becoming a snitch on Cao's gang, To's struggle to retain some kind of normalcy in his life with his girlfriend Bing (Yao Chen) finally leads him to throw his lot with Lui – a wrongly-timed move, as To also confesses of knowing certain things which would render meaningless, criminal even, an extra-judicial act the detective commits in order to bring Cao to justice.

All this is eventually reconciled through the explosive street battle at the end of the film, but only marginally. Well before the fiery finale, the plot points have already been overwhelmed by the bombastic action sequences which, though meticulously choreographed by Chin Ka-lok, would stretch logic to the limit. For all the attention lavished on these scenes, the screenplay takes a hit through pretensions of the epic (such as when a character is made to recite The Lord's Prayer – backed by stirring music – as his loved one is thrown off a building) and the intrusions of clichés (as seen in the interaction between To and Bing, a character who could use more dimension than just the formulaic hoodlum's long-suffering partner).

The artifice actually runs against what should have been Firestorm's strongest suit – that is, the efforts spent in authenticating the film's Hong Kong roots, as neighborhoods, streets and landmarks are all name checked to provide a sense of geographical and cultural precision to the proceedings. But of course, it's an attempt easily laid waste by the cataclysmic devastation at the film's end. It takes more than just gestures of eye-popping force to engage viewers.

Venue: ScreenSingapore (world premiere; opens on mainland China and Southeast Asia on Dec. 12, and Hong Kong on Dec. 19)
Production companies: Edko Films Limited, Sil-Metropole Organization, Focus Films Limited, Good Friends Entertainment, China Dream Film Culture Industry Limited, Ample Ideas International Limited, He Xin Zhongshan Jin Investment Management Company Limited, Elegance Media Guangdong Company Limited, Youku Tudou Inc
Director: Alan Yuen
Cast: Andy Lau, Gordon Lam, Yao Chen, Hu Jun, Ray Lui
Producers: Bill Kong, Andy Lau, Rosanna Ng, Chan Pui-wah, Dele Liu, Cheung Hong-tat, Ren Yue, Zhang Yuancheng, Allen Zhu
Executive Producers: Bill Kong, Song Dai, Andy Lau, TP Lim, Sze Jaime, Aaron Liao, Zeng Yi, Jane Tang, Victor Koo
Screenwriter: Alan Yuen
Director of Photography: Chan Chi-ying
Editors: Kwong Chi-leung, Ron Chan
Production Designer: Renee Wong
Costume Designer: Boey Wong, Man Lim-chung
Music: Peter Kam
Action Director Chin Ka Lok
International Sales: Edko Films
Language: Cantonese (Mandarin for China and Singapore releases)
108 minutes.