CITY ON FIRE Review: Popcorn, Good for the Soul
Jemima Kirke, Wyatt Oleff and Chase Sui Wonders star in the melodramatic Apple TV+ mystery series.
The city never sleeps ... for a very good reason.
City on Fire
The first two episodes are now streaming on Apple TV+ . New episodes will debut weekly. I've seen all eight episodes.
Not to be confused with Ringo Lam's crackling 1987 classic, which was appropriated by Quentin Tarantino (Reservoir Dogs, 1992), and also not to be confused with Don Winslow's novel of the same name, which was first published in 2021, this particular City On Fire, is based on the first novel by Garth Harth Risk Harbell, which was first published in 2015, and was set in the 1970s.
The series places its action in 2003, as New York City was still grieving the tremendous loss of life and psychic despair of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Created by Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage, who also wrote all eight episodes, the series is carmel popcorn for the soul, tasty and sentimental to the extreme.
Schartz and Savage are best known for previous popular televised fare, such as The O.C. and Gossip Girl. I watched all four seasons of The O.C. (2003-2007), which was glossy, silly, and superficial, but mostly grandly entertaining in its modest and self-mocking style that reminded me of my homeland, as a Los Angeles native. (I never watched Gossip Girl.)
This is probably why I glossed onto City on Fire, which is big, brassy, and faintly ridiculous, yet sincerely intended and featuring several terrific performances, especially Chase Sui Wonder as Samantha Yeung, a young NYU student who doesn't go to class much, instead going to every nightclub music show she can. Sam, as she's called, soon gets involved with a small group of troublemakers, and things escalate from there.
Since I lived in NYC during the 80s and 90s, the city settings drew me in, as did the characterizations, which are generally captivating and felt reassuringly familiar. Sam quickly becomes best friends with the one-year-younger Charlie (Wyatt Oleff), a kid from Long Island whose father died at 9/11. Charlie is besotted with the friendly and tactile Sam, who treats him like her younger brother.
Jemima Kirke and Ashley Zukerman give quieter but very strong performances as Regan and Keith, a wealthy couple with two young kids whose marriage is on the rocks due to Keith's affair with a young woman. Regan's father, Bill Sr. (Geoff Pierson), is the CEO of the family property business, but is showing signs that he may be losing it mentally, while Regan's brother William (Nico Tortorella) is a putative artist whose relationship with his boyfriend Mercer (Xavier Clyde) is on the rocks because of his drug addiction.
Writing it out like this, it sounds unnecessarily complicated and luridly melodramatic, and I haven't even mentioned the red herrings and building fires or the hulking, menacing Sol (Alexander Piniero), who is Insecure Evil Personified, or John Cameron Michell as Armory, who dresses nattily, like Evil Tom Wolfe, and talks softly, always displaying a sinister smile that fairly shouts out: "Hey, over here! I'm the villain!"
Even with all the transparent plot mechanics chugging away, I was constantly entertained and couldn't wait to see how it might play out. The series revolves around Chase Sui Wonders. Even when she's lying comatose, she manifests a magnetic power that affects everyone and everything in her orbit. Chase Sui Wonders captures her character's joy in her surroundings, her delight in meeting kindred spirits, and her fears for the darker side of humanity. It's a great performance.
I also loved the well-matched investigating police detectives, Parsa (Omid Abtani) and McFadden (Kathleen Munroe), who are entirely convincing. They start from an assumption that everyone is guilty and everyone is lying, but are willing to change their minds when they hear convincing evidence otherwse.
Detective Parsa is my favorite character of the year, in fact; he does his job, despite a physical disability that requires the use of a cane to walk. He still gets the job done, though, and since his disability matches mine, I felt personally strengthened as I watched him work. (Of course, he has a fictional explanation for his limitation that is far better than my own, but that's fiction for ya.)
Veteran director Jesse Peretz helmed half the episodes and makes them sing. The song is familar and sometimes becomes hysterical, but its heart is pure and kind, I think.
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City on Fire
City on Fire
- Ringo Lam
- Ringo Lam
- Sai-Shing Shum
- Chow Yun-Fat
- Yueh Sun
- Danny Lee