Last year saw Ringo Lam, the acclaimed Hong Kong director behind such action spectaculars as City on Fire and Full Contact, stage a comeback with his first feature film in more than a decade. Wild City was a rather modest offering compared to the giddy heights of Lam’s heyday, but nevertheless whetted fans’ appetites and left them clamouring for more from one of their favourite maestros of mayhem.
Sky on Fire stars Daniel Wu as the chief security officer at a state-of-the-art medical research facility, who is forced into action when a truckful of stem cell samples is hijacked. Wilfully nonsensical from the get-go, the film appears unshackled by such trivial restraints as logic or coherent plotting, nor in any way interested in developing its characters, their relationships or motivations, and as a result, is set to disappoint almost everybody.
This would all be fine if it offered 100 minutes of entertaining gunplay, innovative stunt work, or even just empty spectacle, but Lam’s action sequences in Sky on Fire are scarce and lacklustre. Things only kick up a gear in the final reel, when the film appears to actually lose its will to live right there on the screen in front of us, blowing itself up and taking half of Hong Kong down with it. If only it was as exciting as it sounds.
That is not to say Lam doesn't try. He does stage a number of shoot-outs, and crashes numerous vehicles into each other at relatively worrisome speeds. He even sets a few of his characters on fire. Yet Sky on Fire still somehow manages to be mind-numbingly boring, most likely because it is populated by too many faceless factions, all jostling for control of some valuable ex-stem cells that can apparently cure cancer.
Dr. Tang (Fan Guangyao) wants them to get rich, while his estranged wife Dr. Yu (Zhang Jingchu) simply wants to save lives. Their research was cut short five years earlier when their lab burnt down, killing her mentor, Dr. Pan. Now Pan’s son, Ziwan (Zhang Ruoyun) wants the samples for himself, hoping they will lead him to his father’s killer. Exactly why he suspects foul play is unclear, but of course, he is right.
Thrown into the mix is Amber Kuo’s terminal cancer patient, Jane, who can no longer afford treatment and is not long for this life. In a last ditch effort to get some help, Jane’s brother Jia (Joseph Chang) brings her to Tang’s Sky Clinic, in the ridiculously tall and shiny Sky One tower - a CGI monstrosity on the Kowloon waterfront. En route, Jia stumbles upon the heist of the truck containing the samples and decides to seize it for himself.
Somewhere in the middle of all this is Tinbo (Daniel Wu), recently widowed (cancer, obviously) and under the employment of Tang. Once everything kicks off, he immediately questions his boss’s motives and changes sides to help Dr. Yu. By this stage Ziwan has also teamed up with Jia, and maybe has a thing for Jane. Everyone wants the ex-stem cells and everyone is against Tang. That much is for certain.
If Sky on Fire acknowledged the ridiculousness of its plot, and went all out just to entertain, it could be forgiven having such a needlessly convoluted tangle of characters with such murky motives. Sadly, very little of the action in the film grabs the attention at all. What little the film does offer by way of notable altercations almost all involve Li Haitao’s dedicated goon, Wolf, who enjoys a couple of brief yet bloody fist fights. The first is with Tinbo, during which he has a glass table smashed over his head. The second, against Jia, leads to the film’s standout sequence, when Wolf is challenged to follow his target and leap from one high rooftop to another. It’s a moment that injects tension and humour into a ballsy bit of action - an element sorely missing elsewhere in the film.
There are ridiculous moments peppered throughout the film - Dr. Yu’s angry drunken calligraphy, the weaponising of a hospital drip stand - but all are overshadowed by the characters' propensity to behave erratically and illogically time and again. The film’s climax will no doubt delight some viewers, but it will be due to its sheer disregard for plausibility - and for human life - rather than for being anything approaching good cinema.
Sadly that’s Sky on Fire all over. A hodgepodge of randomly conceived ideas, carelessly thrown together in the hope of achieving an acceptable runtime. Sky on Fire offers nothing of value, and considering the past achievements of those involved, both in front of and behind the camera, that is what really burns.
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