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Sky on Fire (2016) Review: Or, How I Learned to Stop Loving and Worry about Ringo Lam

December 17, 2016

Upon leaving Sky on Fire, I tried to think about what would be the most memorable thing about the screening. Just as I approached my bus stop, I had to accept it and realize that it was the laughter that erupted after the film’s final scene. Poor Ringo Lam.

Sky On Fire China Poster
If you understand this poster, you still probably will not understand the plot in Sky on Fire

Let’s get caught up: Last time we left Ringo Lam he had returned after nearly a decade away from making feature films, with Wild City. That film definitely did not make anyone’s Best Of list that year, and by my count, in only three results from Google did anyone say “Welcome Back Ringo” in relation to the film. To sprinkle some salt on that wound, one of the post appears to be a duplicate review on another website.

Lam has a lot to prove if he will ever be mentioned beyond a footnote that his City on Fire film was “influential” to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Attention reviewers and writers covering Lam in the future: he has other films, folks! Perhaps his name has been tarnished since the 1990s. After a popular string of films such as Full Contact, and the other films like City on Fire and the Prison on Fire series, we can even delve into cult favourites like the edited-to-bits and highly political School on Fire. Or the box office failure but hardcore fan favourite, Burning Paradise, a film that blogger Rob Larsen compared to Blade Runner in terms of production design.

How bad has Lam fallen off? Well, his American productions had him becoming a Jean-Claude Van Damme enabler, making a series of poor films long after the Van Damme was box office gold. His only film for Johnnie To’s Milkyway Productions, Looking For Mr. Perfect, which should’ve been a wake-up for him to join To for his millennium golden period, just sort of plopped out as an odd comedy.

So, surely with the release of Sky on Fire, a film title that even calls out to his golden period of the past, he means business now, right? I am sad to report that Sky on Fire is a complete clunker. Where to start? The main issue is a script which cannot establish characters, a script that does not make us realize the importance of what our main character (played by Daniel Lu) wants (something about stem cells? Blood? Sister?). It’s a shamble and is not strengthened by a cast beyond Lu, who all fail to make any real presence felt. Maybe they do not understand the script either.

For the Lam die-hards (if such things exist), some of his car chases will recall happy memories of the past films like Full Alert, and he hides some CG cars particularly well… until we get to the end of the film, where we enter a tower of a parking garage. This tower is shown casually through the film, but judging by the elevator and scale, is the whole building one large garage? Why!?

It would be easy to blame a story writer, screenplay author or director for some of these problems, but oops, Lam is credited as all three! Thankfully, there have at least been two other Hong Kong films in the recent past that I managed to see theatrically that went over well, specifically, To’s Three and Cheang Pou-soi’s SPL II. It’s just a shame that To can still make solid films that stand on their own, while Lam appears to have peaked in the 1980s or 1990s.

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