“If you had chased Coke that day, would our destinies have been reversed?” a cop turned villain asks of his righteous colleague, but his friend has no answer for him. The final film from director Benny Chan who sadly passed away last year after being diagnosed with cancer while filming, Raging Fire (怒火) pits a disgruntled police officer wronged by the system against an incorruptible detective but suggests that the real villain is an increasingly corrupt society in which the rich and powerful have a direct line to justice.
As the film opens, noble officer Cheung (Donnie Yen) is racing towards some kind of altercation in a shipyard but later wakes up next to his much younger and very pregnant wife (Qin Lan). After a years long operation, his team is about to take out a petty criminal involved with a previous investigation which resulted in fellow officers getting sent to prison for excessive use of force. After refusing to to help a wealthy businessman make his son’s drunken car accident go away, Cheung is taken off the case while the raid turns out to have been a trap leaving eight of his friends dead and many more injured. Through his investigations, Cheung begins to realise that his former colleague Ngo (Nicholas Tse), recently released from prison, may be responsible for the deaths of his friends in pursuing a vigilante revenge against the police force he feels betrayed him.
“This society doesn’t reward good men” Ngo later insists, though his total and relatively sudden transformation from earnest cop to bloodthirsty psychopathic killer seems something of a stretch. Cheung aside, the Hong Kong police force is depicted as infinitely corrupt and working at the behest of the rich and powerful to further agendas not always in the interests of justice. The case which caused so much trouble related to the kidnapping of a prominent financier and the secretary he was canoodling with at the time, the financier’s wife having obeyed the kidnappers’ instructions not to call the police by ringing a government contact instead which is why the operation is covert. Ngo and his team were told to do whatever it took to extract information from a suspect who later wound up dead but were hung out to dry by the superior officer who ordered it. Not unreasonably they see themselves as victims of a corrupt system but care little who might get in the way of their vicious bid for revenge.
For his part, Chueng is also a thorn in the side of his colleagues because of his refusal to play along with the base level corruption all around him. Dragged to the meeting with the businessman by nervous colleague Beau (Patrick Tam), Cheung sips tea rather than the wine everyone else is drinking and eventually storms out making a point of paying for his exorbitantly priced beverage while refusing to be complicit with systemic corruption. So upright is he that he asks a passing driver if he has insurance before borrowing his car to chase down Ngo and when he himself is accused of breaking protocol the entire squad shows up to petition the disciplinary panel on his behalf. Ngo asks him if the situation would have been reversed had it been Cheung who had questioned the suspect that night, but of course it wouldn’t because Cheung would never have beaten a suspect to death in the first place.
Chan places this debate front and centre by setting the final showdown in a church currently undergoing renovation, Ngo seemingly judged for his moral transgressions while Cheung meditates on the man he used to be in a bromance montage that laments the tragedy of Ngo’s fall from grace. The battle of wits between the two men, Ngo of course uniquely positioned to game the system he rails against, ends only in futility while the system which created him remains unchanged. Chan shoots with characteristic visual flare sending his compromised cops through a golden hellscape of the contemporary city veering between beautifully choreographed, high octane action sequences including a lengthy car chase through a highly populated area, and procedural thrills tinged with ambivalent social commentary in which justice itself has become commodified while police officers exceed their authority and bow to the rich and powerful. A throwback to classic Hong Kong action, Chan’s final film is a fitting finale for the career of a director taken far too soon.
Raging Fire screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival and will be released in US cinemas on Aug, 13 courtesy of Well Go USA.
International trailer (English subtitles)