Prison on Fire (1987) Review

"Prison on Fire" Chinese Theatrical Poster

"Prison on Fire" Chinese Theatrical Poster

Director: Ring Lam
Writer: Nam Yin
Cast: Chow Yun Fat, Tony Leung Ka Fai, Roy Cheung Yiu Yeung, William Ho Ka Kui, Victor Hon Kwan, Tommy Wong Kwong Leung, Frankie Ng Chi Hun, Wong Man Gwan, Joe Chu Kai Sang, Shing Fui On
Running Time: 98 min.

By Numksull

Lots of directors out there could learn a valuable lesson from Ringo Lam. No artsy-fartsy cinematic snobbery to be found in his films, for better or for worse. He and screenwriter Nam Yin simply tell the story, holding little, if anything, back, with a distinct and refreshing lack of frills. Whereas other writer-director reams try to be the well-balanced meal from the yuppie restaurant with all the extra shit that nobody eats, Lam and Nam are the big, juicy, sizzling hunk of dead animal from the jam-packed steakhouse that satisfies even the heartiest appetite.

Tony Leung Ka-Fai is a mild mannered guy who gets imprisoned for accidentally causing the death of some asshole who had it coming, and Chow Yun-Fat is the wise, charismatic con who befriends him. Both men light the screen on fire (there you have it, friends: my lamest “joke” of all time) with high-energy performances, assisted in no small part by a talented supporting cast of troublesome inmates and corrupt officials for them (Chow and Leung) to clash with. There are several bare-knuckle brawls, the last (and best) of which has Chow Yun-Fat going absolutely berserk on Micky (the Triad who looks like an Asian Bill Gates) and then Scarface. In an unforgettable moment sure to inspire more predictable Mike Tyson jokes than you can wave a subpoena at, he bites the fucker’s ear off, spits it out and spews a liberal amount of blood along with it, then laughs maniacally. The thunder and lightning outside for this scene crank the melodrama up to a deliciously absurd level, and I half-expected Chow to shout “IT’S ALIIIIIIVE!!!” in true Viktor Frankenstein fashion. It would have been easy for Ringo Lam to excise this image (along with the bloody smear under the bus after Mr. Asshole gets squished by it) from the film to get a Category IIB rating, rather than the Category III classification it carries now. He didn’t. Bravo!

Prison on Fire is solid if not spectacular entertainment that would be a worthy addition to an introductory Hong Kong film package. The only real problem is the skimpy shorts that the cons have to wear. Ick. Let the sodomy references fly.

Numskull’s Rating: 7/10

By Tequila

The film that convinced me Chow Yun Fat was the greatest actor of all time. And also the film that convinced me Ringo Lam is one sick bastard too.

Leung Ka Fai gets sent to jail for manslaughter after kicking a triad under a bus, complete with sound effects (EWW!). There, he meets up with Chow Yun Fat’s Ah Ching character, who happens to be the most charismatic prison inmate ever. Stuff happens, but I don’t need to say more because you WILL see Prison on Fire.

Basically, Chow Yun Fat and Leung Ka Fai both deserved awards for this film as both of them are F*CKING FANTASTIC. No jokes. While some may say Roy Cheung is his usual sneering self, it works here and the evil prison warden is bloody well suited to this flick. I was stuck to the screen for the whole thing and I hated the fact that it ended because it just really demands more – probably why there was a sequel that was almost as good (but not quite). Ringo Lam really made the dull grey prison come alive with the characters and not the visual aspect because there’s only so much you can get from grey walls and dusty exercise yards.

Prison on Fire gets a bit freakin’ sick near the end and Chow Yun Fat shows that Mike Tyson watches Hong Kong movies with a nasty moment, but it doesn’t detract from the film because it’s already shocked you with the way the prisoners are treated. Ah Ching must be the most luckless man in Hong Kong…

Tequila’s Rating: 9.5/10 (Some of the best acting ever)

By Retter

Ringo Lam’s “Prison on Fire” is a gritty prison drama that revolves around two inmates. When one of them notices a triad inmate steel a pair of scissors a war of grudges erupts with violent confrontations between prisoners and even the warden.I enjoyed this movie because it seemed quite realistic especially Chow Yun Fat’s good performance as the experienced prisoner used to life in the “Big House”. Ringo Lam has constructed a good plot that includes emotions from joy to hatred. The climax is especially entertaining and I give it my strong recommendation. This film was followed by a sequel but it failed to capture the grittyness and haunting themes of the original. Chow Yun Fat’s character in this film resembles Paul Newman’s in the classic 1967 film “Cool Hand Luke”. I think all Hong Kong movie fans should watch this film because it’s a hidden gem that although was not an international hit ranks among my all time favorites.

Retter’s Rating: 8/10

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