The Pang Brothers' most accomplished film in quite some time still falls short of being legitimately entertaining. Despite some competently staged action and aesthetically pleasing 3D flames, the film is repeatedly hobbled by woefully bad writing that fails to grasp the mechanics of basic storytelling.
After a training exercise goes wrong, Keung (Louis Koo) refuses to serve under his older brother, Tai Kwan (Lau Ching Wan) any longer and quits the fire department. Four years later he is celebrating the launch of his new fire security company, based in Guangzhou International Commercial Centre. Meanwhile, his now estranged brother is wrestling with the news he is soon to become a father. His wife, Si Lok (Angelica Lee Sinje), visits her doctor, located in the same building as Keung's office, only for a huge fire to break out in the basement, trapping hundreds of people inside.
While Tai Kwan, who always puts his duty as a fireman ahead of his emotions or family, spearheads the firefight from below, Keung has no option but to resort to his former role and attempt to guide an assortment of survivors through the building to safety.
There once was a time when the prospect of a new Pang Brothers film instilled genuine excitement in audiences and critics, but those days have long since gone, after a parade of duds destroyed any good will they earned with The Eye and Recycle. Their recent explorations into 3D photography have also failed to take off, so it comes with no small amount of surprise and pleasure to declare that Out of Inferno 3D is The Pang Brothers best film in almost a decade.
The film features a number of competently staged action sequences - climbing out of windows, across ledges, up and down elevator shafts and - in the film's stand-out setpiece - attempting to evacuate the building using a large construction crane from a nearby worksite.
The 3D photography is well utilised in accentuating the dizzying heights during these sequences, while the blankets of fire that sweep across the floors and ceilings feel alive and genuinely threatening. The Pangs' horror pedigree creeps into these moments as much aurally as visually, with the sighs and roars of the fire echoing many a ghostly threat from their back catalogue, while even inducing the occasional jump scare.
While the film is set in Guangzhou, one of the large cities that has sprung up on the mainland side of the Hong Kong border, the interiors were all shot in the Pangs' regular home of Thailand. That said, kudos must be given for insisting that the film be played out in Cantonese. While Guangzhou is predominantly Cantonese speaking, the increasing prevalence of Mandarin spoken in Hong Kong movies would have made an easy case for recording this mainland-set film in Mandarin too. So seeing the balance readdressed in this way is somewhat comforting.
However, as accomplished and deserving of carefully metered praise as these elements of Out Of Inferno are, the film still manages to fail, thanks in large part to an infuriatingly inept script. Original scriptwriter Szeto Kam Yuen, whose previous credits include Flashpoint, Exiled and SPL, passed away last year and the film is dedicated to him. Unfortunately, the finished product has another four credited writers to its name, and between them they have failed to create anything resembling an engaging narrative, coherent characters or even a plausible sequence of events.
Almost from the get go, this disparate collection of supporting characters behave unrealistically and infuriatingly, simply to put themselves in danger. There's a young girl and her parents, who get separated by the fire; a pair of opportunistic jewellers who murder their boss and steal his wares when chaos breaks out; and a completely superfluous doctor who one can only imagine was a rival for Si Lok's affections in an earlier draft, before being sidelined to little more than a footnote.
Even the leads are implausible, with Tai Kwan's unflinching dedication to the job and stubborn reluctance to accept the role of husband and father never once ringing true. Meanwhile, Si Lok's willingness to put up with his behaviour is equally bewildering. Keung's motivations for turning his back on the fire department seem driven by the film's needs rather than his own, mirrored by the swiftness and eagerness with which he embraces his old ways once he is put in danger.
Most frustrating of all, however, if the reluctance of the film to develop any of its firefighters, with the possible exception of Lau Ching Wan. The film opens with an introduction into their perilous profession, then shows in some details how many trucks are on the scene, their different roles, the hierarchy - only to then completely ignore all of this and the potential for high-stakes action and drama, instead opting for a string of melodramatic cliches that soon grow repetitive and tiresome. Fans of Johnnie To's Lifeline - in which Lau also starred - will find precious few of that film's strengths here.
As a result the cast is largely wasted, with Koo given the most to do, as Keung balances dapper city boy with reluctant-yet-capable action hero, while Lau is often forced to act through a gas mask or simply to give his trademark hangdog expression with cold stare. It's criminal to see young Crystal Lee - the award-winning 10-year-old star of Dante Lam's Unbeatable - utterly wasted in a nothing child role (which admittedly she likely filmed first).
Out of Inferno, grammatically incorrect title aside, shows numerous glimpses of genuine promise throughout - enough that I will still keep watching Pang Brothers films in the hope they make another good one. However, they let themselves down again and again here with a poorly conceived script that seems only interested in manoeuvring its one-note characters into the next set-piece, while making those involved as annoying as possible in the process. In the end, the faults outweigh the film's positive aspects, but by their own incredibly low standards, Out of Inferno 3D proves a notable step forward for the Brothers Pang.