Film Review: City On Fire (1987)

Also known as: Lóng hǔ fēng yún (Hong Kong)
Release Date: February 13th, 1987 (Hong Kong)
Directed by: Ringo Lam
Written by: Ringo Lam
Music by: Teddy Robin Kwan
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Danny Lee, Sun Yueh, Carrie Ng, Roy Cheung

Cinema City & Films Co., 105 Minutes


City On Fire is the film that many people accused Quentin Tarantino of ripping off for his debut picture Reservoir Dogs. Tarantino was attacked by some for lacking originality with his first movie. Having now watched City On Fire, there are certainly some strong similarities but I don’t see Tarantino as a thief. Besides, he is known for his films being homages to his influences. Whether that is a show of respect or straight up plagiarism is up to each individual filmgoer that has seen his films and the ones that influenced his work.

This film helped the career of Chow Yun-fat and it kept the momentum going after his big breakthrough role in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, a year earlier. This film also helped cement Chow Yun-fat in the Hong Kong crime genre that worked well for him for many years. He has always been associated with some of the best Triad action thrillers of 1980s and 1990s Hong Kong cinema and really is the face of that pivotal and historical era that saw Chinese filmmakers evolve beyond the kung fu flicks that ruled the 1970s.

The story of City On Fire sees Chow Yun-fat’s Ko Chow sent undercover by his superior, Inspector Lau. He is sent in to bring a syndicate to justice after a violent jewelry robbery. The gang is led by Fu (played by Danny Lee). Ko Chow gains the syndicate’s trust and forms a strong bond with Fu. Ko Chow is then pursued by the police due to his association with Fu’s gang. The police are initially unaware that he is an undercover agent sent in by Lau. Ko Chow’s ethics are then challenged, as he wants to do what is right but he also has a friendship with the criminal Fu.

Reservoir Dogs comparisons aside, City On Fire was influential to a lot of films. It certainly lays a groundwork that was more meticulously explored in Infernal Affairs, which went on to be remade by Martin Scorsese as The Departed. It also influenced John Woo’s 1989 international hit The Killer, which saw Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee in a role reversal situation, as Chow plays a hitman that develops a strong friendship with a cop played by Lee.

I don’t feel that City On Fire is as good as the John Woo crime dramas starring Chow Yun-fat. It is still a solid movie throughout, but it feels a bit rushed storywise and it comes off a bit hokey at times, despite its high level of violence and serious nature. My issues with it could be due to seeing a version that had pretty awful dubbing. It was a strange experience seeing Chinese mobsters talk with proper British accents and the simplistic dialogue made it pretty clear that a lot of details weren’t properly communicated in the English language version.

It is a nice film to look at. The cinematography was well handled. The scene in the cemetery really stands out as being the visual pinnacle of the film. Also, the shootouts and action sequences were gritty in all the right ways.

Ultimately, City On Fire is a good piece of Hong Kong filmmaking. While slightly below the level of the great Woo films of its era, it has a well deserved reputation and went on to inspire a lot of other artists behind the camera.

Rating: 7/10