A gang of thieves is planning a jewel heist. The leader is a well known organized crime boss. He recruits several of his associates and one new comer. It turns out this new man is actually an undercover cop with a life of his own. He does what he can to fit in with the group. He makes friends with one of the group’s toughest veterans. They casually talk and begin to know each other. Everything goes wrong on the day of the heist. Alarms go off and cops surround the jewelry store. The gang has to shoot their way out, and the body count builds and builds. The undercover cop is shot in the process by a bystander. He’s taken to the hideout, where the mob boss exposes him and plans to shoot him. The only person standing in his way is the veteran. The end is tragic with gun shots and bloodshed being the destiny of all involved.
The plot description above is not necessarily for the movie you are thinking about. It’s not about a bunch of guys sitting around a table and talking about Madonna. There are no men in black suits. There are no clever cultural references. The movie is Ringo Lam’s 1987 film, City on Fire.
City on Fire Starring Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee. Directed by Ringo Lam
Reservoir Dogs Starring Tim Roth and Harvey Keitel. Directed by Quentin Tarantino.
Looking at the plot you can immediately see the similarities between this film and Quentin Tarantino’s famous debut Reservoir Dogs. Both delve into a storyline of a botched heist and an undercover cop with a protector on the inside of the gang. This is really where the similarities stop. Storytelling, direction, dialogue, and acting make each film feel totally different.
The biggest difference between the two films is that City on Fire is told in a straightforward way. While Reservoir Dogs was a great debut of Tarantino’s style of flashbacks and an interwoven story, City on Fire tells a very similar tale in a linear fashion. There is a positive and negative in this creative decision. First, the film is able to establish its main characters in a capacity that Tarantino’s film is not able to do.
Reservoir Dogs is able to give a framework for each of its many characters, and while the psyches of Mr. White (Harvey Keitel) and Mr. Orange (Tim Roth), are exposed somewhat, the film does not have in depth character work, because time is limited and the cast is large. City on Fire focuses mainly on two characters, Ko Chow (Chow Yun Fat), the character Mr. Orange is based on, and Fu (Danny Lee), the Mr. White template.
Chow Yun Fat gives one of his best performances in this film. While his roles in John Woo Epics Hard Boiled and The Killer have a stronger cult following and his Li Mu Bai in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon gave him world wide attention with his most soulful performance, his role here is his most human. As Jeffery in The Killer and Tequila from Hard Boiled, Yun Fat is a two gunned, one man slaughterhouse. In these films he is more akin to a superhero as he plows through literally hundreds of enemies. Here he is just an undercover cop. Ko Chow merely wants to get through this case and retire. He’s seen his friends go down in the line of duty and he knows the next one will be him. He is extremely hesitant to even take this case and gets little support from the police force he is in.
The big difference here with Mr. Orange is the time spent on Ko Chow’s personal life as opposed to how he gets into the gang and the events after he is shot. At least half of the screen time given to Tim Roth is after he has been shot and is struggling with being gut-shot. The other portion of Mr. Orange as a character deals with his preparation in joining the gang. Ringo Lam takes time to show Ko Chow as a man struggling with his personal life and as an undercover cop. He wants to marry his girl and retire. He is pressured into this situation and is not happy with it. This creates a more solid emotional attachment to Ko Chow than an audience feels with Mr. Orange. The circumstances are dire as the Mexican standoff at the film’s conclusion includes a character we have a real investment in.
The scene would also not work as well if it were not for the work of Danny Lee. A veteran of many Hong Kong films, Lee is most well known for his Inspector Li Ying, the second most important character is John Woo’s The Killer. That film had Lee playing a very similar role to his Fu in this film; only he is on the opposite side of the law. In both cases, Lee is a driven professional who is relentless in his pursuits. Both roles have him as a very likeable character that has great on-screen chemistry with Chow Yun Fat. In the post heist scenes, Lee springs into action. The getaway from the jewelry store in both this film and Reservoir Dogs are nearly identical. Viewers seeing this film for the first time will do a double take as Fu pulls out two pistols and blows away two cops in a patrol car coming toward him. Fu is every bit the violent gunman that Keitel’s Mr. White is. Here the character work done is much more balanced out. One could even make the argument that more attention is paid to White than Fu, as he gets several scenes of exposition and actually becomes the character you care about the most in the final shootout. Still, Lee’s contribution to City on Fire cannot be understated. His scenes with Yun Fat seem genuine as they get to know each other and grow close. In the end, you know he will defend Chow with his life against a man he has known for years.
The problem with shooting City on Fire, as opposed to the style that Reservoir Dogs uses, is that the film is not as distinctive as its American pseudo-remake. The film is easily lost in a sea of other Hong Kong picture from masters like John Woo and Tsui Hark as well as Ringo Lam’s own filmography. Lam’s best work is a remake of sorts as Richard Stark’s pulp novel The Hunter was the basis for Full Contact. The film is the story of a man who is betrayed by his lover and his best friend and goes through an entire crime syndicate to get revenge. The book was already the basis for Point Blank starring Lee Marvin in 1967and was remade again in 1999 as the Mel Gibson vehicle Payback.
The cultural impact of each film is not even close. Tarantino used Reservoir Dogs as a springboard for the rest of his career. By using the framework of City on Fire, tearing it apart, and putting back only the parts he wanted, the Director constructed a film that would showcase his particular style. The sky would be the limit for the former video store clerk.
Even though there are cultural differences due to the fact the films are in two different languages, it is not difficult to determine that Tarantino’s film has much better dialogue. From the opening frames of the film, even the casual viewer can see that Reservoir Dogs is much more prone to just stop for a while and talk. With dialogue being one of Tarantino’s major strengths, it is not hard to see why this is the case with his debut.
QT’s trademark of playing with time frames also makes its debuts in his heist film. This is perhaps the single most influential or perhaps most copied of Tarantino’s techniques. While different time frames and perspectives have been a fixture in cinema throughout the decades from Citizen Kane to Rashomon , Tarantino is noted for playing with time without warning to his audience. The technique is both jarring and exhilarating. After Pulp Fiction solidified his M.O., it became copycat open season. While some films are superior examples in the Crime Genre such as The Usual Suspects and Memento, they owe much to Tarantino and his gangsters in black suits.
But Reservoir Dogs is in no a way a perfect film. Many critics argued that while his characters were colorful, no one in the cast is worth caring about as the fireworks go off. The film seemed only an exercise to some; a flashy movie with no heart. This is where City on Fire can possibly be considered superior as a picture.
With the new found popularity of Hong Kong cinema in the post-Matrix era, many have discovered the charms of Ringo Lam’s film. It is too bad that Tarantino has never really publicly acknowledged City on Fire, which kind of weakens the artistic integrity of his debut as it seems a bit like plagiarism. Fortunately both films are on DVD and can be enjoyed for what they are. City on Fire is a fantastic example of Hong Kong’s Crime Film genre with great performance from its leads. Reservoir Dogs is a tremendous debut from a man who is now one of cinema’s premiere film makers. Both are about the same heist, but with a little different perspective.
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