A few months ago, I saw this Chinese fantasy film called League of Gods starring Jet Li, which I thought was sure to be one of the year’s biggest turkeys, with perhaps an even more egregious use of CGI and half-baked characters than Hollywood’s Gods of Egypt earlier this year. Upon the end credits of this new film, which I was secretly anticipating for, it is a misfortune to have myself proved so utterly wrong, especially considering a Hong Kong action titan wrote and directed this abomination.
This should have never happened. It couldn’t possibly have happened. But it has. Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire is not only one of the worst films of the year, but it is also a career low for Lam, who specializes in hard-boiled, gritty neo-noirs, like 1987’s City on Fire and last year’s underrated Wild City. Now, not only do I worry about Lam’s next outing or his even his sanity, but I’m even more worried that other Hong Kong action filmmakers may stumble in the same pratfalls with their upcoming projects (John Woo’s Manhunt, for example).
The plot apparently follows a security expert (Daniel Wu) who becomes embroiled in a battle to protect stem cell research, which can potentially cure cancer, from falling into the wrong hands. Said battle involves scientists with opposing views, a simpleton desperately trying to find a cure for his cancer-stricken sister, and another party which wants to steal said stem cells for….profit? The latter isn’t entirely made clear in this film. In fact, pretty much the entire muddled set of characters switch allegiances like clothes on their hangers without breaking a sweat, which will prove to be very confusing with even the most attentive of audience members. The only thing worthwhile about them is that they are played completely straight by their actors without going over-the-top, as if Lam directs them to play the ridiculous material completely straight. In some aspects, this plays off, and star Wu even shows signs of potential as a good action hero before Lam himself squanders it.
Now, the action sequences. Sure to be a life-saver in a Ringo Lam film, yes? Well, for the first two thirds, they are indeed hard-hitting, but you’ve seen all of the juiciest bits of action in the trailer. While I admit they do follow Lam’s trademark ferocity at times, they are a merely used as placeholders to break the tediousness from time to time. And there’s that concern of excessive, poorly-rendered CGI in Chinese cinema that doesn’t involve Hollywood talent. Lam’s previous Wild City had bad CGI too, but it was used much sparingly in lieu of character-driven and practical action set pieces that work very efficiently for the most part. Here, Lam drowns himself in a sea of ugly CGI which completely engulfs the film’s destructive climax, leaving this reviewer slack-jawed at how utterly awful this thing had become. I’m dead serious, the ending of this film, involving the demolition of a skyscraper, completely killed whatever goodwill the film had left; there was an awkward, dead silence in the packed theater hall as the credits start to roll; the very last shot before that combines the endings of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Man of Steel in an horrendous CGI mess that left everyone absolutely bewildered.
Coming from an avid action film junkie who wanted this film to succeed mostly… I cannot believe what I just saw. This isn’t just a massive disappointment; this is a gutshot. It’s a disgrace to Lam’s …on Fire series and it’s a big red mark on what previously was a sturdy career of tough, no-nonsense action neo-noirs, which are his specialty. Seeing him here, writing and directing a wildly stupid techno-thriller, is like seeing a try-hard old man desperately trying to fit into the in-crowd of today. It’s not just frustrating, it’s depressing.