**½/**** Image B- Sound A-
starring Chow Yun-fat, Sun Yeuh, Lee Sau Yin Danny, Carrie Ng
written and directed by Ringo Lam
by Bill Chambers Although it inspired the quintessential U.S. crime picture of the past decade, Ringo Lam's 1987 Hong Kong action-thriller City on Fire suffers in a freshly-Americanized form: Dubbed and revised dialogue does not Reservoir Dogs make it, and the few nods to western pop-culture induce groans. (One re-recorded villain exclaims, "Show me the money!") This new version was overseen by Dimension Films, the Miramax subsidiary whose home-video division has carried on the proud tradition of importing Asian flicks of cult repute and turning them into unintentional laff riots. Since Hollywood rarely makes a decent action picture to save its life, this practice has transcended racism and is beginning to look like sour grapes.
In City on Fire, (Brother) Chow Yun-fat plays Ko Chow, a chain-smoking undercover agent with his sights set on "resignation." At the request of his cop uncle (pleasant Sun Yeuh) and against the wishes of his fiancé (unpleasant Carrie Ng), Chow agrees to implicate a group of known jewel thieves by arming them with illegal weapons. But the snakes at headquarters have bigger plans for Chow, ordering him to become fraternal with the robbers until they invite him along on their next big heist.
Quentin Tarantino had the right idea when he expanded the last ten minutes of City on Fire to feature-length for Reservoir Dogs. (Not a big secret, though every few years some clown shouts "J'accuse!" at Tarantino like he's solved the Kennedy assassination.) City on Fire's warehouse climax is by far its most compelling section, but the sequence bites off more than it can chew, introducing and summing up themes simultaneously. The filmmakers burn up so much energy getting Chow onto criminal turf that the relationships once there are hastened towards poignancy, as when one of the thieves (Danny Lee) shows his loyalty to Chow by starting and engaging in a Mexican stand-off with the remaining gang members. (In his previous assignment, Chow bonded with his doomed mark, an emotional dilemma he had hoped not to repeat.) Yet another American film did City on Fire one better in this particular regard: Donnie Brasco.
I wonder, though, if I've really seen City on Fire, seeing it this way. Aspects of the film weather Dimension's dubbing--for instance, I like Lam's lean approach to the cops 'n' robbers' often-vicious shenanigans: the requisite wiretap is only as complex as Chow taping a cassette recorder to his belly, while the heists entail lots of commotion and gunfire and stuffing bags full with necklaces--none of the sterile, gadget-assisted ballet we see in Robert De Niro movies. And Brother Chow's performance, 180° away from the distinguished-gentleman persona he cultivated in the decade that followed (dig that Eighties hair and Marty McFly attire!), is ultimately affecting, giving Tim Roth a run for his money. Dimension could've perhaps looped a voice closer to his timbre, not to mention less comical ones for the otherwise deliciously loathsome police department heads.
I haven't seen Universe's region-free, Chinese-language release of City on Fire, but based on their efforts I have sampled, it's safe to assume that Dimension's DVD looks better. (The brightest promise of any major studio's English revamp of a Hong Kong flick is a more-than-tolerable image.) Letterboxed in anamorphic widescreen at 1.85:1, the transfer boasts acceptable contrast, plus better-than-average colour rendition for an HK title. The print's speckling is fairly minor; any grain has a video-noise quality, not unlike Criterion's LaserDisc of The Killer.
After one gets past the dubbing--and lowers the volume considerably--the Dolby Digital 5.1 sound is an unexpected sonic delight, atmospheric almost to a fault: the crime scene scenes can be disorienting, what with sirens and walkie-talkie blares competing for attention in the split surrounds, and ambient bass is over-the-top in chapter 13 (a simulated rowdy party that Chow can hear from across the street). The remix does succeed in "placing" the viewer, at least. Still, for an original-language option with a decent subtitle translation. Bonus material is limited to a two-page selection of "sneak peek" trailers: The Yards, Essex Boys, The Legend of Drunken Master, Supercop, Supercop 2, Twin Warriors (a.k.a. The Tai Chi Master), and Fist of Legend. Originally published: July 29, 2001.