It was supposed be a rollicking cop drama with hardcore shootouts and pyrotechnics in the busy streets of downtown Hong Kong.
It was supposed to be a movie I was willing to wait 3 months to see.
It opened with one of the most unique sequences seen in commercial film, (but not the medium itself, see here) which effectively drew me in and got me psyched for what was to come.
The plot was derivative of many Hong Kong cop dramas, I.E. bad cop and good cop slam into each other, discover brotherhood/parallels between one another, merry mishaps ensue.
That didn’t bother me though, I expected that.
What I didn’t expect was that Fire of Conscience would take my expectations for it and shit all over them.
My first impression came in the form of a trailer I stumbled across:
When I saw this trailer, I saw a movie that promised action, bullshit Chinese melodrama, and at least one instance of a man exploding.
In truth, Fire of Conscience does in fact contain all of these things, however the balance, the amount of screen time and care devoted to each of these elements; is all out of whack.
Well, except for the exploding man thing. I don’t think any movie should be expected to have any more than one of those, no matter how hardcore it is.
The action in Fire of Conscience is not really “action” per se.
In more dramatic films, “action” usually boils down to something more like straight up “violence” or “tension.”
In the case of Fire of Conscience, I came into it expecting ACTION. After all, the trailer proclaimed the film to be an “action powerhouse.”
There’s really only a pair of true ACTION sequences in the film, and while both are fairly impressive on a visceral level, both suffer from irritating use of the “shaky cam” effect we seem to see everywhere these days.
It’s not that the cinematography ruins these scenes, it’s simply that it feels forced, as if the filmmakers are using it as a cheap trick to fool us into buying the tension, into buying the gritty and grim situation the players find themselves in.
Personally, I prefer action that is staged well over action that is manufactured using simple tricks and nonsense.
I will say this though, the pyrotechnics and stunt work in Fire of Conscience were top-notch and certainly deserve praise.
I liked how subtle wire-work was incorporated into many of the explosions in the film, effectively simulating the concussive effect produced by such an event.
Also, it wouldn’t be a Hong Kong movie without people falling off buildings and being thrown through glass.
In fact, I found myself smirking as Richie Jen got put through a windshield during a curiously low-key beat of a fight scene.
It was almost as if the filmmakers were so completely unimpressed by the prospect of putting someone through glass at that point in the film that they didn’t even bother to properly frame the stunt with a camera.
The drama aspect of Fire of Conscience is sufficient to move the story forward, but like the film’s implementation of the “shaky cam” effect, much of it feels inorganic and forced.
In fact in the earlier stages of the film, much of the plot progression is achieved in the form of dropping new characters into our lap.
This results in a film that gives the viewer a feeling of being perpetually missing something in the narrative until it’s later stages.
I found this to be as much provocative as it was confusing.
The film does a pretty good job with giving it’s characters a significant amount of depth, however I feel it often reaches too far, giving us details on 5-6 fairly important characters, when doing the same for 1-2 major ones would’ve been more appropriate.
Fortunately, the film does manage to deliver in terms of fleshing out it’s 2 main characters, although I will say that Richie Jen’s character was criminally underused for the most part.
Despite this, the film embraces pop-star Leon Lai as it’s main character, and often manages to hit all the right notes when it comes time to explore his “detective with a troubled past” backstory, particularly during quieter and more contemplative scenes.
Lai’s acting however, consists of being vacant and gruff while never moving his face. It’s not all that effective, and is downright creepy at times.
One thing that surprised me about Fire of Conscience, was the fact that it was directed by Dante Lam.
Lam’s career these days seems to be derived from his 1998 film, Beast Cops.
I name dropped this movie during my Epic Donnie Yen Post, and with good reason. Beast Cops was a great movie that was filled with energy, drama, violence, and a host of colorful characters that we cared about.
In many ways, it is everything Fire of Conscience tries to be.
Dante Lam doesn’t have a perfect track record by any means, *cough!* Sniper and Twins Effect *cough!* however he usually has the chops to piece together entertaining movies with impressive set-pieces and high-points.
Fire of Conscience has no real high-point.
In fact, though it feels childish of me to say this, one of my biggest objections to the film lies in the fact that the scene from the trailer that I was anticipating most amounts to almost nothing.
Did you catch that brief moment when Leon Lai runs through the streets with a big-ass G3-SG1 in hand?
That was supposed to be the climax of the film.
That was supposed to be the scene in which Dante Lam aped Michael Mann by staging a massive shootout in the streets of Hong Kong ala Heat.
That scene lasts maybe a minute, and only about 3 shots are fired, all semi-auto.
When that scene in the movie came and went, my heart sunk.
There was maybe 20 minutes left in the film, and I already knew there were no more surprises or set-pieces to look forward to.
In my mind I’d like to believe that that scene was cut-down as a result of filming costs in downtown Hong Kong, after all, I have yet to see another film that truly SHUTS DOWN A FUCKING CITY like Heat did, and Hong Kong budgets aren’t exactly up to standards with Hollywood’s.
Fire of Conscience was ruined by my own expectations for it.
It just goes to show you that, the movie on the screen is no match for the movie in your mind.