Vivendi Visual Entertainment // 2010 // 107 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Josh Rode (Retired) // November 3rd, 2011
Revenge is all that matters.
Director Dante Lam seems intent on cornering the market on dark, edgy Chinese police films. From 2008 through 2010 he directed and released four films about policemen trying to do their jobs while in the midst of severe personal turmoil. Fire of Conscience was the third release, coming out in the same year as the Hong Kong Film Award nominee The Stool Pigeon.
A Hong Kong police detective loses his wife and unborn child to a mugger on a bus, which leaves him an empty shell who spends his nights chasing down every pickpocket he can find, shaving their heads, and trying to get the lone witness to the murder to finger them. Since he doesn't want to go home, he sleeps in his van, where his team brings him his mail and the news of their cases. The most recent case involves the murder of a prostitute and turns out to be linked to the case of a narcotics inspector. As their paths continue to cross, the detectives and inspector find that they have a lot in common, both in terms of their rather ruthless manner of working and in the paths they took to get where they are.
Fire of Conscience is a sort of anti "buddy cop" film with a nihilistic twist on the standard formula. No one is safe during the course of the 107 minutes, including the main characters. There are grenades and bombs and ubiquitous guns and nearly every other set piece is the scene of a major firefight. To say this film is violent is to say that the sun emits light. There is a convoluted story that connects the violent dots, but Fire of Conscience works better as a character study than a narrative; it looks at two detectives with similar pasts and the direction it is taking them.
Captain Manfred (Leon Lai, Bodyguards and Assassins) is fresh off of his life-defining moment, and is still in the raw stages of dealing with it. Inspector Kee (Richie Ren, Life Without Principle), on the other hand, was put on this road some undefined time back. So in essence, Kee is what Manfred is going to turn into if he continues on the same road. The film decides near the end that it wasn't clear about what it was trying to say, so it goes out of its way to link Manfred and Kee in a slightly more concrete way, but I suspect that something is missing in translation. There is a reference to a red dragon and its hold over fate, but this apparent cultural idiom is neither explored nor explained earlier in the film, aside from Manfred referring to the pair of them as "dragons." It comes up as a keystone reference without warning or definition, and thus feels to a person from a different culture like it was just kinda tacked on as a sort of hokey attempt to add dramatic depth.
The characters are much more gritty than normal, and most of the cast does a great job of bringing them to life. Lai is quite believable as the burned-out cop who lives in his van and smolders with anger over the murder of his family. This is not your typical leading cop role; he doesn't fight or shoot better than everyone else, nor is he particularly brilliant or observant. Even his torturing methods lack imagination and finesse. Every move he makes seems out of desperation; he truly feels like a man with nothing to lose. He is a raw bundle of nerves and feels about as real as a movie detective can.
Ren isn't asked to do as much is the role of placid Kee, but he brings a sense of authenticity as well. He remains unruffled, no matter what the situation, which makes his moments of ruthlessness all the more effective. Not faring so well is Manfred's partner Cheung-on, played by Kai Chi Liu (Kill Zone) as a sort of flighty Quasimodo. He stays hunched over throughout the film and rocks back and forth constantly. I'm not sure what effect he was going for, but the one he finished with can most kindly be described as "distracting."
The shootouts are given plenty of space, so it is usually clear who is shooting at whom. To the film's credit, there are no slow-motion sequences or other silly camera tricks. Just blood baths, explosions, and body parts. The vast number of gunfights does bring up an important question: why aren't these knuckleheads wearing protection? Surely the Hong Kong police force has a stash of bullet-proof vests. Put them on, idiots!
Fire of Conscience is dark, both figuratively and literally, so the balanced color palette is somewhat limited. The 2.35:1 anamorphic picture is sharp and clear of defects. The 5.1 Dolby sound is likewise balanced, with expressive surrounds, but the sub-woofer is not utilized for much beyond the lower notes of the soundtrack. Subtitles are clear and easy to read, but the English dubbing is rather poorly done; with nasal voices, extraneous words, poor flap-matching, and nothing to add to the story. Extras include moderately informative interviews and behind-the-scenes shots, as well as the international trailer.
Fire of Conscience is not for everyone; it is dark and relentlessly violent, and its heroes are not really all that heroic. But it is well made and well acted, and has some interesting things to say about the human condition. Plus, there are lots of explosions.
The red dragon will decide.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Vivendi Visual Entertainment
* 2.35:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Cantonese)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 107 Minutes
Release Year: 2010
MPAA Rating: Rated R