To try and sort out the convoluted plot of Dante Lam’s Fire of Conscience would take more space than this website has bandwidth. Just thinking about the gratuitous twists and turns in the narrative is enough to prompt a migraine. To that end, Lam was probably going for more of the cops and robbers action vibe Hong Kong did so well in the ‘80s and ’90s — and that Lam evoked so effectively in last year’s Sniper and 2008’s surprising Beast Stalker. Both films were throwbacks to the time when Hong Kong’s distinct brand of urban mayhem was emulated by the likes of Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann. Fire of Conscience is the expected follow-ups to those hidden gems, but it’s got too much of everything adding up to not nearly enough of anything.
A murdered hooker is the catalyst for the action here, and 90 minutes after her body is found you’ll be scratching your head trying to recall how she fit into this whole grandiose mess in the first place. But that’s okay. Details like motive don’t matter in the long run even though things do clarify themselves eventually. Fire of Conscience is more interested in vivid set pieces and shootouts than human behaviour. From the opening frames, Lam sets up a black and white world where what you see is distorted and truth is hidden behind layers of muck.
And because it only flirts with logical dramatics Fire relies heavily on whatever presence it can dredge out of its leads. To that end, one-time matinee idols Richie Jen and Leon Lai are pitted at opposite ends of the dramatic spectrum but are firmly rooted on the shady side of standard morality. For most of Fire, Lai does his best impression of a bug-eyed stoner (if that’s possible) as Man, a widower left as such by screamingly OTT fate. Man is a walking powder keg and has a history of excessive force that was only exacerbated by his wife’s death. Contrary to his tightly wound but basically honest blue-collar detective is Kee (Jen). He’s connected to some gangsters that are playing hardball with an unassuming Mainland bomb expert and are dragging him into a criminal quagmire he may never escape. If that’s not enough ethical ambiguity, the hooker’s last client was Cheung-on (Liu Kai-chi, the hardest working man in showbiz) — Man’s partner. Aiyah!
One of the more interesting and under-written angles of Fire is how Kee and Man reconcile the feminine influence within their respective spheres. The memory of Man’s wife and the inspiration Kee takes from his former gangster’s moll girlfriend (an utterly useless Vivian Hsu) inform every decision Kee and Man make, for better or for worse. The two women are never on the periphery of the men’s minds, but they never come into sharp focus for the audience. As such, how much grief, guilt, regret or hope affect Kee and Man’s actions remains a mystery and their actions remain steadfastly macho. Me want money from bad guy. Shoot bad guy. Me want revenge on bad guy … Shoot bad guy. And so on.
Lam and writer Jack Ng seem to want to tackle the thorny issue of police corruption and brutality — several varieties of both — but in the end the high-octane action and atmospherics carry the day. Fire is gloriously brutal and features one of the most creative deaths ever put to film. And once again dim sum lunches are exposed for the potentially hazardous social functions they really are — though I personally have never had Mafioso types open fire beside my har gau trolley. But it also lets viewers down by not sticking with its headier content. By the time the crazy-noisy final shootout unfolds any pretence to explaining what connects and/or distinguishes Kee and Man has vanished. The shootout is visually in line with Sniper’s claustrophobic warehouse (!) finale and has more than one shout-out to John Woo’s epic flourishes, but it’s all surface gloss. There isn’t even any homoeroticism to bask in, and a Hong Kong crime drama without the spectre of some boy lovin’ is just so many kinds of wrong.