City War (1989) Review

"City War" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"City War" Chinese Theatrical Poster

Director: Sun Chung
Producer: Catherine Lau, Dean Shek
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Ti Lung, Norman Chu, Tien Niu, Lee Ka Ting, Lo Lieh, Teresa Carpio, Michael Chow, Ricky Yi, Mary Hon Lut Lee, John Ladalski, Robin Shou
Running Time: 92 min.

By HKFanatic

City War will likely always hold a fascination for Hong Kong movie buffs, as it’s a vintage heroic bloodshed films featuring the fan favorite pairing of Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung, reunited just two years after A Better Tomorrow II. If only City War could live up the hype and expectation that will no doubt surround it upon first viewing. But the truth is that the movie is just not very good.

Like many Hong Kong films of its era, the tone of City War is wildly uneven. The first hour or so of the movie bounces back and forth from frivolous comedy to steamy romance, as Chow Yun Fat grins and dances his way through the script as a young but high ranking cop with a thing for the ladies. Ti Ling merely smolders with rage in the background, hissing through clenched teeth about injustice in the system and how Hong Kong has gone to the dogs, AKA the Triads.

Their somewhat happy co-existence is shattered when a top Triad gangster (played by a scene-stealing Norman Chu) gets out of prison after a 10 year stint and sets his sights on our heroes. From there, the script dovetails out of nowhere into pitch-black tragedy.

By the end nobody’s smiling for the camera and City War wants us to take it very seriously. The story predictably builds to a climactic shoot-out in a warehouse-like location, which would be all well and good except that the action choreography ends up being a disappointment. City War was directed by Shaw Brothers veteran Chung Sun (The Avenging Eagle). This was Sun’s one attempt at making a more contemporary kind of Hong Kong film towards the end of his career but unfortunately he doesn’t seem particularly adept at handling blood-spurting action.

Plenty of bad guys are riddled with bullet holes but the staging lacks the style and ‘oomph’ of a filmmaker like John Woo. The ending battle would have benefited from the kinetic flair, judicious use of slow motion, and respect for spacial choreography that Woo displays in his finest works. In comparison, the action in City War comes across as choppy and overly edited. Another Chow Yun Fat film – Tiger on Beat – at least went for broke with its ending by embracing madcap, chainsaw-swinging physicality.

A limp ending might not be such a disappointment if the rest of City War gave us a reason to care. But the script seems written on the fly, Ti Lung is sadly underutilized, and Chow Yun Fat’s natural charisma is almost wasted in a role where he has nothing much to do but romance a gangster’s girl until it’s time to get revenge. If you’re anything like me, you’ve probably been eager to view this film just to witness an ’89 pistol opera pairing of Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung. Sadly, the movie I pictured in my mind was a lot more entertaining than this. There are plenty of similar titles I can recommend viewing over this (Tragic Hero, Dragon Family, even Flaming Brothers). I’d only suggest making time for City War once you reach the bottom of your ‘heroic bloodshed’ checklist. Come on, I know you’ve got one.

HKFanatic’s Rating: 6/10

By JJ Hatfield

The movie has barely begun before action explodes on the screen. A cop is chasing a shoplifter and they end up in a restaurant where the criminal holds a woman employee hostage. The bad guy is also holding a really long bladed knife to the poor woman’s throat and blood is dribbling down her neck. With the cop, Ken (Ti Lung) not making much progress the hostage negotiator, Dick, (Chow Yun- Fat) is called in to deal with and diffuse the standoff. It’s almost a good cop – bad cop situation except nothing was planned and there is nearly a fight between the two.

It all works out and the two cops can work together well but Ken is short tempered whereas Dick is more mellow and kicked back in his white polyester suits. He likes the finer things in life including beautiful cars and beautiful ladies, not necessarily in that order. However he is always on the look out for clues and really does take his duty seriously.

The viewer should remember this film was made in the 1980s Hong Kong Triad/Crime/Heroes With Guns setting. After the hostage situation things do seem to drag as Dick does his dazzling disco which seems to be more groping than dancing. But do watch and pay attention as it does have relevance. Dick Lee and Ken Chow hold different values in their hearts but they are both truly good men who have become good friends.

Ken is a family man and nothing means more to him than his wife and children. One of the reasons he became a cop was to help make the world, or a portion of it, safe for his loved ones. Ken has a difficult time trying to understand Dick’s flamboyant ways and Dick can’t imagine being tied down with a family. Nevertheless a deep bond develops between them and Dick becomes a friend to the whole family.

Things turn deadly serious when Ken discovers a vicious criminal Ted (Tsui Siu-Keung) is about to be free and on his own after being taken down ten years earlier as part of a major gangland force. Ken was heavily involved and has received threats to him and his family. All this time Ted hasn’t forgotten his revenge and has everything in position. He has no intention of letting those miserable years go unpaid.

In desperation to protect his family Ken nearly ends up off the force. Dick tries to calm him but he cannot know what it feels like to have your family in danger. No one will believe Ken’s fears are real, after all he has arrested many powerful gang criminals before and nothing had happened.

This film helped to re – energize Chow Yun Fat’s career as well as to bring back the excitement and bullet ballets of the great director John Woo. “A Better Tomorrow’ changed many things for a lot of people in the industry, I believe for the good. Ti Lung is always reliable and in some films, even this one, he comes across as very believable. Ti Lung And Chow Yun Fat have been in numerous films together and usually it is Ti Lung with the calmer head. But this time it is family.

I wasn’t impressed with the the direction by Chung Sun. It was adequate but the third act might have used a bit in the earlier part of the film. Once the insane shooting finale begins it’s balls to the wall and … don’t want to say too much. Chung Sun is better known for his work with the Shaw Brothers earlier films in the 1970s and early 1980‘s with movies such as “Human Lanterns”. Hoskin is credited with the story and there are no less than five action choreographers! Trust me, they were needed with this much action taking place!

The finale involves Ken and Dick and a whole bunch of bad asses trying to kill each other in ballistic excess but great action!. That shouldn’t be a spoiler when these two are on the screen. They do have a special chemistry that shines through the role or character!

The massive action is quite good. The fights are filmed in a fashion that allows the viewer to see what is happening. The story line even brings in a special assassin (Robin Shou Wan Bo) in a very brief cameo. Action fans will not be disappointed. This is good solid entertainment. If you feel a bit restless early on do not worry. Your patience will be rewarded!

JJ Hatfield’s Rating: 7.5/10

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