Firestorm (2013)

Firestorm is an action thriller out of Hong Kong. It came out in late 2013 and was shown at three festivals here in the states this spring – Dallas in April, and San Francisco and Seattle just last month. As a starting point, there’s an armored car heist, and there’s a shootout in the city streets, just like in the 1995 action thriller Heat. I think we shall probably have this film in our theaters later this year.

The key point is that Firestorm has way more firepower than Heat. Bigger shootouts, bigger explosions, this film’s second or alternative name could be ‘Pyrotechnics‘. On the other hand, Heat had plenty of character development to keep you involved between the action set pieces. Firestorm makes a stab at it – but is really not all that concerned with developing characters.

The story is simple. Hong Kong mega-star Andy Lau plays HKPD Inspector Liu, and a guy that Liu went to school with, Tou Sing Bong, is played by Gordon Lam. Liu went into the police for his career. Bong went into crime, and as the film opens, Bong and another con have just been released from prison at the same time.

Bong has a girl friend waiting for him. She’s desperate for Bong to go straight. She’s even hooked him up with a job as a chef in an upscale restaurant. But we know his heart isn’t in cooking. But after protesting, he agrees. But the siren song of big time heists is too strong for him.

Liu soon after has to deal with the armored truck heist. And car chases, and a raid in an apartment block which, like we saw in the Johnny To  2004 thriller Breaking News. I could be wrong, but it seemed like in every action set piece, cops and swat teams went flying due to grenades being launched at them. In every car chase, how did they end? Right – with airbags deployed.

In one sense, which I will call the action factor, this movie has it all.

Shell casings clattering on the pavement a la John Woo, shootouts in broad daylights on the very streets that I walked on last fall when I was in Honk Kong like Hennessy Road, Gloucester Road, and Windham Street. Neighborhoods like Central, Quarry Bay, and Wan Chai made appearances. When you come into Hong Kong via the Airport Express Train, it makes a stop at Tsing Yi, and that location figured into the story as well. Even the venerable and most inexpensive form of public transportation anywhere in the world – Hong Kong’s very own Star Ferry got into this film.

What we didn’t get was the usual charismatic villain. We actually had two villains – Cao Nam, was the guy who sneered at Inspector Liu and regularly taunted him for not being able to collect any evidence against him. Cao Nam was played by Mainland China actor Hu Jun. Hong Kong veteran actor Ray Liu, who played Paco, your basic stone killer, was on board too.

Again, to stress the point, this film is filled with violence, some of which is quite shocking. Which leads me to state that the Hong Kong PD Tactical forces or ‘SWAT’ teams in the film, were woefully inefficient.

What the film brings us besides the action, action, and still more action is the moral quandary that Inspector Liu finds himself in. While the high-tech investigation surveillance tools work as expected, the human element, speaking of the police, can’t manage to avoid bloody battles.

When the Police Commissioner (a Michael Wong cameo) tells Liu that he has free rein (wink-wink/nudge-nudge) meaning he will back Liu, no matter what, as in any means necessary to take the guys out by bringing their careers as criminals to an abrupt and instant end, Liu has trouble with it.

He’s really a by-the-book, by-the-numbers, bring the perps to justice and let them have their day in court kind of guy. And it usually works. But not this time.

Two other points – Liu does get wounded, but with the number of times he’s in a car crash, or blown off his feet by a grenade, or takes a bullet in a fire-fight, he does begin to take on a kind of Terminator-like fearlessness and invulnerability. Sure he still hides behind trucks, taxis, pillars, building corners, and turns in the stairwells , and he wears a Kevlar vest – but he seems indestructible.

The same can’t be said for his colleagues, and the swat teams who most of the time can put bullet holes in everything except the criminals.

Despite all of that, this film has high production values, location shooting throughout, tons of CGI, and action, action, action. The budget was apparently in the whatever you need category and it shows. Kudos to Lau, who also produced the film, for having the money spent showing up on the screen instead of just being paid  to the actors. By the way, the film is written and directed by Alan Yuen. While this is only his third feature film as a director, I think he has an outstanding future ahead of him. If this interests you, this film is released in both a 2D and 3D version. My review is based on the 2D.

Check out the trailer:

I’m going to call this one a real thrill ride, a bullet ballet, and every bit of it on the Hong Kong streets and in broad daylight. If you want action, then Firestorm is for you. If you also want character development, and a dramatic and emotional story arc, look elsewhere. Available on DVD (Region 3) on eBay. The Rating is three-point seven five.

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