Unraveling Pop Culture One Thread at a Time
The late Benny Chan’s thrilling drama pic pits action legends Donnie Yen and Nicolas Tse against each other.
Bong (Donnie Yen) is a hero cop. He’s bold, decisive, and always gets his man. For good and ill, he’s got no patience for the brass and their smirking politicking. And he’s got even less patience for those of his peers who grin through the sleaze and kiss up to their superiors anyway. But Bong being a hero isn’t the same thing as his being good. His derring-do, damn-it-if-it-doesn’t-get-us-our-guy mode and his attempts to pass it on have cost people he’s cared for terribly. And that cost isn’t something he’s fully faced.
Chief among those who Bong’s Dirty Harry antics have done wrong? His former protege Ngo (Nicolas Tse). Once, Ngo was a rising star in the Hong Kong police, a man who had it all and was set to carry the fire forward. That was a long, long time ago. In a critical moment, Ngo’s moral courage failed. And as a consequence of that failure, he and the men under his command were accurately judged to be villains. With his life a smoldering crater, Ngo opts to take what little he has left and light a fire with it. If he’s a villain, then so be it, he’s going to be a VILLAIN.
Bong and Ngo have a score to settle. And oh, how it will be settled.
Raging Fire is the final film by the late director Benny Chan (Invisible Target) and man, what a way to cap a career. Raging Fire is a terrific movie. It’s a heroic bloodshed cops and robbers pic built on a straight flush of creative, kinetic action set pieces and Bong and Ngo’s fraught history, and given that special spark by Yen and Tse’s performances.
Tse in particular is just stupendous. His Ngo is my movie villain of the year for 2021. Only Benedict Cumberbatch’s turn in The Power of the Dog has come close to matching Tse’s work in Raging Fire. As an actor, Tse brings a twisted melancholy to the rogue cop. Ngo genuinely wanted to do right and as a reward, his life was sledgehammered by the callow, the callous, and the hypocritical. In his mind, all he’s got left are his brand as a fallen man and the buddies who fell with him. He cannot see a way to make right or fully accept responsibility for his moral failure. So why not go all-in on viciousness in the name of vengeance? It’ll make him feel better and it might just net a payday for the ages.
Tse’s Ngo is my movie villain of the year for 2021.
Ngo is well and truly rotten, and genuinely enjoys being so. But Tse weaves a hint of performativity into his wickedness. He has to psyche himself up, get into the right headspace before he can deal out death with a sneer. On some level, he’s playing the role of arch-villain in the hope that at a certain point it’ll become fully real for him. It’s not quite regret—more resentment at how things played out, and how he can see what his life might have been under different circumstances. It’s terrific work from Tse, especially when taken in conjunction with the flashy but ruthlessly precise fighting style he builds for Ngo. The result is a hiss-worthy villain who’s a blast to watch but not without grim pathos.
Yen’s Bong makes a fine foil to Ngo. He wears his heart on his sleeve, whether disgusted by his superiors’ cheerful corruption or sharing a warm moment with his team. But while he’s a great deal more open than Ngo, Yen builds an intriguing hesitance into Bong—not when in action, or when acting as a leader to his team but in private moments. He does not regret offering the testimony that sent Ngo and his buddies to prison. But he does regret failing him as a mentor, not equipping him with the tools to navigate the moral crisis he found himself in. He has not faced that regret. Nor has he faced the uncomfortable fact that under different circumstances, he might have failed in the same way Ngo did.
The events of Raging Fire force Bong to confront his contradictions and hypocrisies in a way that he’s managed to avoid up to that point. Yen is particularly strong in his quiet moments, whether Bong’s taking his turn at the classic anti-hero-in-the-mirror shot or grappling with the uncomfortable fact that even irreparably warped, his bond with Ngo remains intact. There is still care there—care swirled with hatred, resentment, regret, and still-fond memories.
When Bong throws himself into action, it is on some level an attempt to avoid facing his doubts and discomforts. If he can focus on the job, on the mechanics of it, maybe he’ll be able to work through the reckoning without facing its worst parts. Ngo makes that impossible. By the climax, Bong has no choice but to confront both his former protege and the uncomfortable cocktail of feelings he’s mixed himself head-on. It’s excellent work on Yen’s part, particularly when it comes to Bong’s having to face the role he played in Ngo becoming the villain he is.
And what a climax Raging Fire’s climax is.
This clip comes from midway through Raging Fire, and it elegantly captures part of why the picture’s such a treat. Chan has an excellent sense of scale as an action director and controls it masterfully throughout. Whether Bong’s taking on an angry mob or Ngo’s leading his crew to intercept a drug deal and take the spoils for their own, Raging Fire‘s action set pieces all feel grand—and grand in different ways. One man battles his way through a whole gaggle of folks who want him dead (recalling Erik Matti’s excellent BuyBust). A car vs. motorcycle chase briefly turns into a kinetic close-range grapple. The big cops and robbers shoot-out is a full-on epic, complete with vignettes that feed wallops back into the primary piece.
The main event—Yen vs. Tse, Bong vs. Ngo, both out of ammo in an under renovation Church with no way out but a duel—is bar none the strongest action scene I’ve seen in 2021’s cinema. Don’t get me wrong, One Shot is sublime. But Yen and Tse’s final battle? It’s Fury Road-tier craft—intimate, thrilling, and built as much on the differences in Bong and Ngo’s fighting styles as it is their need to settle things. Ngo is as ruthless as he is stylish, prioritizing offense over all else and doing so with flash. Tse works dual butterfly knives with a beautiful menace. Bong is both more pragmatic and more creative, combining baton work, locks, and grapples with the environment to take the edge wherever he can.
Raging Fire‘s final battle is a joy to watch. Chan, Tse, and Yen bring their all to it (my gosh that bit with the scaffolding) and deliver and deliver again. It’s phenomenal filmmaking, Hong Kong action at its finest, the sort of craft that demands celebration. Especially since there may not be many more to celebrate works like Raging Fire. Benny Chan is dead. Raging Fire is the last we’ll see of his work. And the censorship law the Hong Kong legislature passed recently is already having seriously chilling effects on its film industry.
This is one of the best films of the year. I hope we get to see more like it in the future, works that carry its fire forward. For now? SEE THIS MOVIE. SEE IT. SEE IT. SEEEEEEEE IIIIIITTTTT.
Ragin Fire is now available on Blu-ray and digital, and streaming on WellGo’s Hi-YAH! channel. Blu-ray features include two short making-of featurettes and interviews with Yen and Tse. Tse’s in particular is worth checking out.
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