“City on Fire” is an interesting gangster drama, even though it has flaws. Everything begins when an undercover cop is stabbed to death by a bunch of thugs who had seen through his act. The Police wants to get another man inside the gang to break it apart. The job is assigned to Chow, a down on his luck cop. Chow happens to already bond with people from the mob in order to crack some cases, so he’s the man of the situation. He will have to gain the thieves’ trust, keep his boss informed and also escape from some other police unit which thinks he’s really on the wrong side of the law. Like this is not enough, Chow has women problems. His girlfriend threatens to go on a trip with another man if Chow keeps on his non-committing behavior. Chow really has his hands full as you can see!
The script is quite well written. It deals with all these elements and spins them together in a smart way. On the other hand, the dialogue and the characters aren’t really believable. It’s often hard to understand their motivations. The film is fairly directed by Ringo Lam. Lam is far from John Woo, but he has a nice visual style and he handles most scenes well. The chases and the finale are quite exciting. The cast isn’t exceptional, but it’s good nevertheless. Chow Yun-Fat plays the main character. He’s good, but he’s not as cool or as believable as in John Woo’s films. Here, he sometimes does too much slapstick. Anyway, this is a good crime film, with some interesting twists on well-known themes, but not a classic in any sense.
Now, I’d like to pronounce myself on the controversy between this film and Quentin Tarantino’s brilliant 1992 feature, “Reservoir Dogs”. Okay, these films share some elements. Part of the plot of Dogs involve a jewelry heist gone wrong, all right. There’s also an undercover cop among the thieves. But Tarantino sets these plotlines in a totally different context. The characters are more defined and cooler, the dialogue is extremely sharp and the storyline isn’t linear. “City” is mostly telling what happened to the cop before the robbery, then it shows the robbery and the last 15 minutes are about the showdown in some warehouse. Dogs focus on after the robbery, which isn’t even featured in the movie. It’s all about the tension between the robbers who try to understand why they screwed up. That theme occupies about 2 minutes of “Fire”. I guess Tarantino just took an interesting element and adapted it in a whole different film with much better dialogue, performances and film making. Apart from that, there’s one scene that was really stolen by QT: when a thief shoots policemen through a windshield with two guns, and then Chow is shot in the belly and he shoots a good guy by reflex. The Mexican standoff and the finale are also similar in both films. But, to me, “Reservoir Dogs” is one of the most intense films of all times, while City on Fire remains just some Asian gangster drama among so much others.