The night I saw Firestorm, I was surprised that there were no posters or advertising material on display in the theatre for this new big-budget Hong Kong film. And I was even more surprised to see at the main entrance of the Century City multiplex an over-sized poster for Feng Xiaogang’s new movie Personal Tailor – which has yet to be released! Two hours later, I had a much better understanding of why there was a lack of advertising for Firestorm.
This year has seen the rise of the Chinese action blockbuster, usually a mix of Mandarin and Cantonese talent and money. The two major releases were, in my eyes, terrible movies: Ronny Yu’s Saving General Yang, a star-stuffed CGI-driven atrocity of a picture, and Special ID, starring Donnie Yen, which as an action feature was totally clueless.
Andy Lau is the biggest film star in Hong Kong and his films attract big budgets and quality personnel on both sides of the camera. Firestorm is no exception, a large production of a Hong Kong crime-action movie which the publicity tells us “is a return to the hard-boiled Canto crime thrillers of the 1980s and 90s”. All good intentions, but the reality is a bare-bones crime flick made on the streets of Hong Kong and assembled on scores of computer screens in CGI companies throughout Asia. Firestorm has a huge CGI budget which just hasn’t delivered the goods; there’s no seamless blending of reality and CGI, and this obsession with visual trickery nearly destroys any believable narrative drive.The film opens with an improbable security van robbery in Hong Kong which ends with police casualties and an innocent bystander being executed by one of the robbers. This happens in front of Inspector Lui (Andy Lau), who becomes haunted by this horrific act. Later the Police Commissioner (Michael Wong) tells Lui he has his permission to take down this gang by any means possible.
To see Firestorm is like watching two different films in one. There is a substantial effort made to create a gritty and realistic crime drama, but it’s obvious that the CGI content in overlong action sequences is the priority. Director Alan Yuen is successful in giving the pic a screen toughness reminiscent of Ringo Lam’s movies, in particular Wild Search and Full Alert. Yuen’s attention to detail and his ability to convey fear in claustrophobic situations is first-rate, as shown in a shootout on a cramped stairway in a tenement building.
Andy Lau does a good job with his flawed and conflicted detective role but is limited by a poor screenplay (or serious re-editing), where he faces three different supposed main villains: Gordon Lam Ka-Tung as an ex-con with a grudge; Hu Jun as Cao, a violent criminal with an unstable ego; and Paco, Ray Liu looking more like a character from a video game than a career criminal. The normally reliable Gordon Lam isn’t helped here by mainland actress Yao Chen (If You Are The One 2) as his maybe / maybe not pregnant girlfriend, in a terrible performance from this Beijing star.
There is one sequence in the film which really works, despite its lack of any CGI content. It involves the torture and murder of a police informant and his young autistic daughter. It’s meant to shock and leads to Lui, belatedly, throwing away the rule book in his hunt for this clan of urban killers.
The final section of the movie is a relentless orgy of CGI which is overly influenced by Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises, with its emphasis on collapsing infrastructure and gangsters who have clearly become terrorists. The wholesale vehicle carnage is mostly poorly configured CGI and the film’s final moments are so contrived you could easily think the digital effects budget expired at the same time.
Or maybe I’m completely missing the point here. Could it be that Firestorm is actually a video game masquerading as a full-length movie? Coming soon to an iPhone near you!