Friday, 13 December 2013

Firestorm (风暴) (2013)

Firestorm is a Blockbuster of the Year take on Hong Kong heist films

Having recovered both financially (much of the triad stopped funding films, followed by everyone else) and artistically (witness the rise of Johnnie To’s Milkway and Bill Kong’s Edko as champions of noir and thriller films) from its 1990s slump, the Hong Kong film industry is fit and ready for a Firestorm – a film that is conspicuously conscious about its blockbuster ambitions.

There’s so much going on in it, so much quoting, homage, and pastiche of modern tentpole movies, you’d be hard-pressed to pause for breath or to digest the whirlwind action before your eyes.

Firestorm is abound with gimmicks and twists that can fit into a series of films. This is a heist movie where the art of the heist, and the dynamics between the heist team, and the chess game between cops and robbers are overshadowed by almost constant fisticuffs, gunfights – and an entire third act’s worth of unlimited explosions and munitions that will feel like a major city got totalled in the crossfire. You’d want to slap Loki for Central, but I assure you it’s just 5 robbers improbably fitted with the weaponry of a small narco-state.

And then, it’s also a reverse howdunnit: how will our lawman (Lau) find a way to haul in a supervillain who’s guilty as hell (Chen) but whose guilt can never be proven? This is also a thriller where the by-the-book cop (Lau again) and his ne’er-do-well petty criminal counterpart (Lam) switch moral places by the end of the film, while still maintaining their dedication to law and order and a good life respectively.

With so many stories to tell and gimmicks and twists to spin, the film works well only when it’s working in overdrive. The escalating violence works because the ending – vehicles getting blown sky high, bits of buildings falling off, roads caving in, ashes raining from the sky – is pure carnage we’ve grown to love from too much Hollywood superhero films all trying to outdo each other. The intellectual conundrum and moral reversal gimmicks, however, are best left forgotten given how the script is content with the action moving the story forward than actually working through these two concepts, their execution, and their consequences. As a consequence, the cop, the mastermind, and the petty criminal all come across as underwritten for the sort of psychological drama promised by the two premises.

While not the culmination of excellent noir and thriller writing that we’ve come to expect in post-2007 Hong Kong cinema, Firestorm is a formidable blockbuster in its own right.

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