Plot takes a backseat to pyrotechnics and spectacle as Andy Lau squares off against a gang of ultra-violent thieves in Alan Yuen's absurdly over-the-top crime thriller.
Following a string of domestic hits with homegrown thrillers like Nightfall and Cold War, Edko Films' latest offering is an outlandishly bombastic action flick that eschews almost everything in favour of staging never-before-scenes of carnage on the streets of Hong Kong. However, the over-reliance on computer-generated effects and the almost total absence of plot or characterisation, make Firestorm an incredibly loud, yet hollow experience.
Andy Lau plays by-the-book Senior Police Inspector Lui, who becomes increasingly obsessed with taking down Cao (Hu Jun) and his gang of thieves after yet another audacious and bloody armoured car heist. When Lui's efforts to place a mole within the gang fail tragically, he approaches Bong (Gordon Lam), a former classmate to turn informer and give up Cao. Fresh out of jail, Bong's girlfriend Bing (Yao Chen) desperately wants him to go straight, and it is Bong's conflicted feelings of loyalty that give Firestorm its only dramatic weight.
Written and directed by Alan Yuen, regular screenwriter for Benny Chan who last took the helm for 2002's Princess D, he has clearly been paying attention all these years. Firestorm has a vibrant, kinetic aesthetic that attempts to keep its audience in a state of breathless anticipation throughout. Yuen borrows liberally from the work of Michael Mann, Christopher Nolan and even Justin Lin to inform his action set pieces, and seasons them with copious amounts of high-calibre gunfire, explosions, shattering masonry until eventually the city itself begins to crumble.
At some point the decision was made to post-convert Firestorm into 3D, which pays off during some dizzying aerial shots of the city and the carnage below, but more often proves a queasy and headache-inducing experience. Chan Chi Ying is a hugely accomplished cinematographer, whose recent credits include the likes of Crazy Racer, Detective Dee and Saving General Yang, but his efforts to create a sense of claustrophobia by shooting interiors in ridiculous close-up is completely undermined by the 3D after-effect.
Andy Lau has made a career out of strange career choices, but Firestorm shows a determined effort to take a seemingly straight-laced cop and letting him completely unravel. Unfortunately Yuen's script displays little interest in Lui or his motivations, but instead uses him as the catalyst for the spiralling carnage, while Hu Jun's criminal mastermind does little more than step back behind the protection of the law and watch it all happen.
The main focus of Firestorm is Gordon Lam's Bong, who is released from prison to find himself immediately facing a three-way junction: settle down with his girlfriend and go straight, return to his life of crime with Cao, or go undercover for Lui and give up his gang. Bong is understandably conflicted, but again, Yuen doesn't concern himself with the details of why, but rather relies on Gordon Lam's pained expressions to sell his inner turmoil to the audience. While it is great to see Lam gifted a lead role in such a high profile production, even he struggles to give Bong any real meaning, and it's difficult to identify any discernible bond between him and any of these three influential figures in his life.
Where Firestorm succeeds is through its sheer audacity - it's flagrant disregard for narrative, logic or motivation - but overwhelming commitment to brutal, often unnecessary violence and a desire to impress through excess. The film frequently surprises in its willingness to push the envelope further than most mainstream Hong Kong thrillers would dare, in terms of collateral damage, challenging our sympathies for perceived "heroic" characters, and the boundaries of plausibility and good taste.
Firestorm is a hypnotic car crash of a film. A kaleidoscope of gunfire, shattering glass and inner-city destruction that includes characters only to repeatedly throw them off buildings or into a hail of bullets. The film is batshit insane and ludicrous in the extreme, but has a meatheaded, un-selfconscious bravado that might just see it score big at the box office.
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