Oh well: Sky On Fire film review
Ringo Lam came off of a very extended hiatus in 2014 with Wild City, his first feature film in more than ten years. Although flawed, the film still show flashes of what made Lam’s movies great back in his heyday in the 1980s when he made classics such as City on Fire, Prison On Fire, Wild Search, and Full Contact with the inimitable Chow Yun-Fat. Lam’s second film in three years, Sky On Fire, just released in the U.S. and Hong Kong and like its predecessor it’s a mixed bag. But whereas Wild City retained some of the grit of Lam’s earlier classics, almost all of that texture has been sanded away in this new release.
Though not as dreadfully unmemorable as fellow Hong Kong director Dante Lam’s last flick, Operation Mekong (2016), which I forgot I’d even seen the moment after I left the theater, there’s a certain unnerving genericness to Sky On Fire that is discouraging. Lam used to be one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive directors, with a streetwise style that pulled no punches. Some remnants of that still remain in Sky On Fire but for the most part the film is unremarkable and anonymous. The film follows Tribo (Daniel Wu), the security chief of a medical research firm, as he uncovers corruption and malfeasance involving what the subtitles call “ex-stem cells,” a prized medical breakthrough that can cure cancer. Along the way Tribo tangles with a group of thieves led by a young dude named Ziwan (Zhang Ruo Yun) who have stolen the former stem cells, as well as various baddies out to get their hands on the coveted objects.
In Sky On Fire there are some remnants of Lam’s former mastery. Some of the action sequences are crisp and effective, including two scenes involving hand-to-hand fighting in cramped interiors. The first, which takes place in a small kitchen, features rapid-fire fight choreography that escalates rapidly and convincingly and that displays a mastery of space, movement, and editing. The second, in a narrow hallway, includes painfully realistic-looking violence including an actor’s head shattering the ceramic tiles lining the hallway’s walls.
Similarly, a car chase through the confined streets of Central makes good use of that district’s narrow, winding roads. But besides that the film has very little Hong Kong flavor, which is probably exacerbated by the international cut being dubbed in Mandarin. At first I couldn’t even tell the movie was set in Hong Kong, which is definitely not a good sign.
Sky On Fire also suffers from a convoluted plot and a very uneven tone throughout its running time. Lam makes the unfortunate decision to include a sappy cancer-patient storyline that sucks all of the life out of the narrative. It’s not helped by the fact that Amber Kuo plays the cancer patient in question since she’s a mopey drip throughout the movie. The film alternates to ill effect between the attempted pathos of her situation and the slam-bang action of the rest of the story and neither aspect of the movie meshes with the other.
By the last third of the film the wheels have completely come off as the story swerves into absurdity. The good guys end up in a fight scene in a hospital room while an incapacitated Amber Kuo lies whimpering in the bed. Suffice to say that the weapon of choice in this scene is a pole-mounted plasma bag. Following this unlikely scenario everyone including the terminal cancer patient piles into a car and speeds off, guns blazing. Luckily Tribo thoughtfully reminds everyone to buckle their seatbelts as they veer toward more vehicular mayhem. Other scenes are similarly clichéd, including a character tensely hacking something important from a desktop computer as the screen displays the download status. Can’t they just go on the cloud these days and not have to spend time breaking into an office and using a terminal? Other missteps include some very questionable CGI including fake-looking explosions and fires and a poorly matted rendering of the Sky Tower, the skyscraper where much of the action takes place.
The film wastes a lot of talent, from venerable Hong Kong character actors Wayne Lai and Philip Keung to Daniel Wu, who is stern and scowly but not terribly compelling. Idol drama star Zhang Ruo Yun in his first film role is adequate but unmemorable. Joseph Chang, on the other hand, gets it done with another strong performance. He’s shaping up to be a fine actor and here he combines a notable physicality with a sensitive intensity.
The movie also benefits from advances in digital cinematography as it looks slick and beautifully photographed. But all the pretty photography in the world can’t give the film coherence or make it connect emotionally, which is unfortunate given Ringo Lam’s past work. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to redeem himself with another, better movie sometime soon.
Sky On Fire opens Dec. 2 across North America