Director: Dante Lam Chiu Yin
Writer: Jack Ng Wai Lun
Producer: John Chong, Lorraine Ho, Candy Leung
Cast: Leon Lai Ming, Richie Ren, Liu Kai Chi, Wang Bao Qiang, Michelle Yip Suen, Pinky Cheung, Vivian Hsu, Wilfred Lau Ho Lung, Chen Kuan Tai, Vanessa Yeung Jung, Adam Chan Chung Tai, Chan Hung, Ringo Chan Ka Leung
Running Time: 106 min.
“If you don’t have faith, you’re not alive.” So says Leon Lai’s beleaguered detective in Dante Lam’s 2010 film “Fire of Conscience.” Leon plays a burnt out cop who keeps the faith after the death of his wife by diving headfirst into his work, stopping at nothing to bring perps to justice. Along the way he must contend with some incredibly dangerous Southeast Asian arms dealers and a possible mole within his own team. Does the plot trade in cop movie cliches? Sure, but Dante Lam delivers them in an exciting fashion and doesn’t belabor the fact that we may have seen this kind of story before. Moving a mile a minute despite a nearly two hour runtime and loaded with pulse-pounding shoot-outs and chase sequences, “Fire of Conscience” should please just about anyone yearning for a good Hong Kong thriller.
A few years ago, director Dante Lam was more well known for making pop star fluff like “Twins Effect” and “Undercover Hidden Dragon.” Since 2008’s “The Beast Stalker,” he’s managed to reinvent himself as something like the Hong Kong analog to Paul Greengrass (“The Bourne Supremacy”) or Michael Mann (“Heat”). He films his cops and robbers thrillers with a man-on-the-street style, utilizing dizzying handheld camera work to make the viewer feel like they’re really there, rushing through a crowded Hong Kong market to escape pursuers.
That said, there’s something that separates “Fire of Conscience” from Lam’s other films like “The Stool Pigeon.” It could be the relentless pace, the hardcore violence, or the fact that there’s less of an emphasis on teary-eyed melodrama. I had a feeling “Fire of Conscience” was going to be pretty damn good from an early scene featuring Leon Lai and Richie Ren after their characters have just met. The two of them share a ride to a crime scene, their car gliding through the night past prostitutes and street thugs, and reflect on who the real scum is: the criminals out their window or the top brass back at the police station, who only care about finding a suspect and nabbing positive headlines. It’s this kind of tough guy male bonding that Hong Kong films are so good at.
Leon Lai and Dante Lam prove to be a potent match. Leon is more of an understated actor – you’re never going to see the man break down and sob on camera, it’s just not gonna happen. Leon prefers to sit there with his thousand yard stare while a single tear rolls down his cheek. The presence of Lai seems to temper Dante Lam’s usual melodramatic tendencies, which were in full effect during “The Beast Stalker” and “The Stool Pigeon.” I understand that Lam is eager to have an emotional core to his films, something that will pull the audience into the story, but nobody wants to see an action flick where hardened criminals break down and cry like they’re on a daytime talk show.
“Fire of Conscience” certainly has its heart-tugging moments but for the most part it’s all about the action and Dante Lam serves it up in liberal doses. A highlight comes when Leon Lai and his police crew engage in a violent shoot-out in the middle of a teahouse. Rather than go for the ultra-stylized John Woo approach, Dante Lam favors the carefully controlled chaos of someone like Michael Mann, where claustrophobic camera angles and keen sound editing make you feel like you can hear the shell casings hitting the carpet at your feet. Although this sequence is rapidly edited, it still wonderfully communicates the geography of the restaurant so you know where everyone is and what their escape route might be even when the bullets are flying.
There are plenty more exciting moments where that came from, especially when grenades are introduced into the equation. In fact, Dante Lam seems to have a love affair with grenades in this film – hey, as an action fan, I’m not complaining. Overall, Lam portrays Hong Kong as a barely stable environment where violence could erupt at any moment. One minute you’re sitting in a traffic jam, the next minute Leon Lai is running past your car holding an assault rifle. Restaurant patrons sitting and enjoying a meal scramble as the glass window next to them shatters and a fight between cops and crooks spills into their midst.
Besides Leon Lai, the rest of the cast is excellent, including veteran character actor Liu Kai-Chi (“Sha Po Lang,” “Infernal Affairs II”), who is actually given a meaty side role. Special mention must be made of Michelle Ye (“Overheard 2,” “The Sniper”), an actress who plays down her natural glamour in this film by cutting her hair and wearing functional cop clothes. Ye is sexy without trying; she merely plays a loyal cop who is good at her job, and can hold her own during shoot-outs and intense interrogations. This is exactly the kind of female role I like to see in an action movie – where an actress’ character is just as empowered as the men but the filmmakers see no need to draw attention to the fact. Richie Ren is also superb in his role but to talk about his character at all would reveal some of the plot and “Fire of Conscience” is a movie that deserves to be seen unspoiled.
“Fire of Conscience” is the movie I wanted “The Beast Stalker” and “The Stool Pigeon” to be. Watching the film reminded me why I fell in love with Hong Kong movies in the first place and why it’s still one of the best destinations for action cinema. Dante Lam’s filmmaking style may not be unique in the world but he’s certainly one of a kind in Hong Kong; and from quotes I’ve read from the director, he seems committed to furthering the cinematic dialogue in his home country. A Dante Lam movie won’t necessarily feature the artful shot compositions or character development of a Milkyway Production, but you know you’re in for a gritty, well-told story and a chase sequence or two that will make your adrenaline spike. “Fire of Conscience” makes good on the promise of Dante Lam’s earlier work and delivers what is without a doubt one of the best Hong Kong thrillers I’ve seen since 2002’s “Infernal Affairs.”
HKFanatic’s Rating: 8/10