Review: Raging Fire (NYAFF 2021)

by Matthew Edward Hawkins

Each and every year the NYAFF strives to offer a diverse assortment of motions pictures that truly represents the massive content of Asia. Long gone are the days in which only the big three, aka Hong Kong, Japanese, and Korean films, receive the majority of the spotlight; in addition to being introduced to movies from mainland China, Taiwan, Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, India, and Pakistan, the New York Asian Film Festival is how I discovered that the on Filipino cinema scene is currently on fire, and am confident that most Americans can site the same exact source. Yet, in the end, my heart belongs to HK so I naturally jumped at the chance to check out the latest from Donnie Yen.

If you guessed by the title and its star alone that Raging Fire is a crime drama, then you would be correct; Yen plays Bong, a hard-boiled detective (naturally) who actually follows the rules, and such rigid righteousness is ultimately the source of all his problems. Very early on, after refusing to let the kid of a very powerful person off the hook for a crime he should totally pay the price for, Bong is punished by not being allowed to take part in a sting operation he spent years orchestrating. Though it ends up being for the best, because it ultimately ends in disaster, with both the target being taken out and all of Bong’s colleagues. The culprit is none other than Ngo, portrayed by Nicholas Tse, the leader of a pack of bitter ex cops that recently served time for excessive force. Turns out, not only was Ngo Bong’s protege, said usage of excessive force was orders from above (kinda/sorta). Anyhow, it was Bong’s testimony that sent Ngo and his crew to jail, so naturally a ghost from the past leads to an action-packed game of cat & mouse, you know the deal.

At its core, Raging Fire is about as basic and by the numbers a Hong Kong action flick can get. Though some might come to its defense by deeming it a “throwback” or “old school”, myself included; it’s been amusing to witness individuals bemoan the lack of the theater going experience during the pandemic, and then them rushing towards the crap that AMC had on re-opening day. And while I was more than happy to see this movie on my TV at home, and have enjoyed a mind-numbing number of older movies via cable access 2.0 throughout lockdown, I nonetheless understand the underlying emotions of the aforementioned individuals. Then again, I’d have enjoyed Raging Fire no matter what, not just because I was indeed dying for a first run HK action spectacular, but due to such films being so utterly watchable, regardless of circumstances. The acting was, as expected, super engaging; if you’re a Donnie Yen stan, you will not be disappointed, though what took me off guard was how captivating Nicholas Tse is, especially his decision to evoke pro wrestling star Kenny Omega when he was a heel while in NJPW’s Bullet Club faction. The action was, as also expected, simply phenomenal; the car chases are spectacular, though the usage of CGI was in certain shots rather ingenious, while in others pretty silly. As for hand-to-hand combat, Yen was once again the fight choreographer, which meant more of the traditional martial arts with modern MMA moves sprinkled that we first saw in Sha Po Lang (aka Kill Zone).

My only real issue was with the story. I can’t really say why without giving away a MASSIVE spoiler, so I’ll simply state this: as with All U Need Is Love, I’m giving Raging Fire a free pass. And that’s because it was the final film by writer/director Benny Chan (recipient of NYAFF’s Daniel A. Craft Award for Excellence in Action Cinema in 2014), who became ill during filming and ultimately died of cancer in midst of post-production. I’d like to think that, if Chan had been able to oversee the film in its entirety, certain flaws would not gone uncorrected. It nevertheless never got in the way of my enjoyment of the movie. Alas, the bigger issue that I feel others will be less forgiving about is its sermonizing of the role of the police. Whereas All U Need Is Love was a reminder of the initial fear & anxiety that surrounded COVID’s arrival, which was the point of that movie, in Raging Fire‘s case I couldn’t help but be reminded of something else from last year, that being BLM and associated protests against law enforcement.

Raging Fire is being screened in-person, on Monday August 8, 7:00pm, at the SVA Theatre; you can find the link to purchase a ticket here. Them on the Friday after that, it enters wide release, so it might be playing at an AMC near you?

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