AKA: Battle of Life
Director: Ringo Lam
Writer: Ringo Lam
Cast: Daniel Wu, Amber Kuo, Joseph Chang, Zhang Jingchu, Philip Keung, Zhang Ruoyun, Eddie Cheung
Running Time: 90 min.
By Paul Bramhall
The return of Ringo Lam to the director’s chair for 2015’s Wild City was big news for many Hong Kong cinema fans, and for good reason, with Lam the force behind so many of the territories classics. Proving that his come-back isn’t just going to be a one-off deal, a little over a year later the auteur has another production hitting cinema screens, and its title is significant. Kicking off with 1987’s seminal City on Fire, Lam’s ‘…..on Fire’ series became some of the most hard hitting movies to come out of Hong Kong. Such was their popularity, that soon other filmmakers were jumping on the bandwagon, with bets (1988’s Bet on Fire), walks (Walk on Fire, also from 1988), islands (1990’s Island on Fire), cheetahs (1992’s Cheetah on Fire), and even angels (1995’s Angel on Fire) being set on fire.
For Lam himself though, his last official entry was 1991’s Prison on Fire 2. Now, 25 years later, he returns to the series he’s most closely associated with. The title Sky on Fire is perhaps indicative of a director who’s regained enough confidence to revive such a synonymous name, as while reviews for Wild City split many down the middle (I thoroughly enjoyed it), others felt like it showed the signs of a director trying to find his way again. With Wild City now under his belt, many were hoping that Sky on Fire would be the full-fledged Ringo Lam movie we’ve all been waiting for, bringing back the grit that’s been missing from so much of Hong Kong’s output for a long time.
Sky on Fire is completely Lam’s show, with directing, script, and story all attributed to his name. After a successful stint playing the lead role in the U.S. martial arts infused post-apocalyptic TV series, Into the Badlands, American born Daniel Wu plays the lead in his first Hong Kong action movie since Dante Lam’s 2014 thriller That Demon Within. Wu plays the head of secruity for an advanced research centre of an advanced cancer research centre, located in a towering skyscraper named Sky One. The centre has found a way to use ex-stem cells to cure cancer, and now, for a variety of different reasons, there’s a number of characters who want to get their hands on the cure.
I could go into a lot more detail regarding the plot, however as it somehow succeeds at being both convoluted and forgettable at the same time, I don’t trust I’d be able to recall all of the exact events that take place correctly. As much as it pains me to say it, Sky on Fire is a ridiculous mess of a movie, one that frequently doesn’t make sense, and also manages to be ploddingly dull for large chunks of its run time. Proceedings open with a lab fire that takes place 5 years prior, in which we learn that a doctor who’s potentially found a way to cure cancer using ex-stem cells suspiciously dies, along with all his notes. Skip forward to present day, and we’re introduced to a series of disjointed events that take place in quick succession.
Joseph Chang (the villain from Wild City) and Amber Koo (recently seen as a ghost in Keeper of Darkness) play brother and sister, with Koo suffering from late stage cancer. She also seems to be simple minded, although this may not be the case, and could just be down to a lousy script that makes her seem like the village idiot. It’s hard to tell. They learn that a doctor in Sky One could help cure her, so head over with no other plan than to walk in and ask him to treat her, but instead stumble across a robbery attempt of the ex-stem cells in the basement car-park. The robbery is being committed by the surviving family members of the doctor that suspiciously died, who want to get the ex-stem cells for, well, I don’t remember exactly what. Anyway – the surviving family, Cheng and Koo, Wu, and a bunch of bad guys all end up trying to get them back. Oh, and Wu has a wife that died of cancer, which is there purely to serve as one more cancer connection to the story.
The plot is frankly ludicrous, and frequently baffling, although Lam plays it completely straight, seemingly unaware of how daft it all is. The fact that we’re introduced to the characters and their plights straight away also doesn’t help, as they’re given zero characterisation, but the plot demands that we should still be emotionally invested in their predicament. Learning that Koo has cancer and Chang wants to help her doesn’t class as character development, and as a result from the word go it’s difficult to care about what happens to them. Another pair of characters are introduced via a photo montage, of which is also seemingly expected to act as enough characterisation to make us want to care about what’s going to happen to them. It doesn’t.
Sky on Fire has another significant issue, which comes in the form of CGI. It’s overloaded with it, and none of it works. Most glaringly, the Sky One tower itself is a CGI eye sore, looking like a promotional video that you see in a new apartment complex showroom. The building never once looks like a natural part of its environment, instead resembling a shoddily put together bunch of pixels stuck on the Hong Kong harbor. Other uses of CGI are on par with a Nollywood production in their complete failure at integrating into the environment that they’re supposed to set. A helicopter looks embarrassing, a bad guy falling from the tower was done better 40 years ago, and sometimes even the Hong Kong skyline is a poorly rendered CGI creation. I won’t talk about the explosions.
There are parts of Sky on Fire were you really want to laugh, and know that it’s the right thing to do. At one point a character, upon getting ahold of the ex-stem cells, in complete seriousness declares, “Ex-stem calls, such a beauty!” In another scene a dog gets run over, and its death is the most poignant out of all the deaths that take place (which includes an important character being set on fire! At least the theme is being maintained more literally than previous entries). Someone even gets an injection that’ll make their heart explode within 30 minutes, Uma Thurman could have saved a lot of effort on training to Kill Bill if she knew that was around. However it’s simply not possible to laugh, because everything is filmed so seriously and with such weight, that it ultimately becomes mind numbing to get through.
Of course any Ringo Lam crime thriller is expected to deliver some gritty action sequences, and Sky on Fire has its moments, although they’re few and far between, often hindered by the issues already mentioned. I do give credit to one fight scene though, in which Wu faces off against the main henchman in the confines of a small house. At one point, he picks up a glass table and literally smashes it into the face of his attacker, providing a simple but surprisingly welcome variation on the usual get hit and fall through a glass table HK action cinema trope. There’s also a brief Hong Kong rooftop foot-chase, how long has it been since we had one of those!? Mercifully, the buildings used are real and not CGI, although unfortunately it’s over before it really gets started, and again it comes to an abrupt end thanks to some rickety CGI air conditioning units.
It’s unfortunate that the action in a Ringo Lam movie only serves to break up the monotony of it, rather than complimenting what’s unfolding onscreen, however it’s sadly indicative of just what a miss Sky on Fire is. The ending almost feels like Lam realised what a mess he’d made, and simply threw his hands in the air and told the CGI team to do what they want, as the final shot literally resembles something from the finale of Man of Steel. Who knows, maybe his next movie is going to be titled Dawn on Fire?
It’s a shame, as Lam has always been one of my favourite directors, and Wild City in my opinion showed an assured hand and understanding of what it takes to make a gritty crime movie in the current Hong Kong film industry climate. Sky on Fire should have been the movie to cast aside any doubt that his long-time fans still may have had, but in its current form it’s almost impossible to ascertain what it was originally conceived as – Cancer themed drama? Pharmaceutical thriller? Medical action flick? In the end it’s a messy combination of all of those, all of which seem to be working against each other. They say the sky’s the limit, and with Sky on Fire, it appears that Lam may have reached his.
Paul Bramhall’s Rating: 3/10