REVIEW: Sky on Fire (2016) – ManlyMovie

REVIEW: Sky on Fire (2016)


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.


  • Lt_Cobretti


  • Lt_Cobretti

    Well it’s official then, China ruins everything. First Hong Kong Cinema, then Hollywood and then probably Godzilla soon now that they own Legendary pictures.

    • AlTeo

      There have been a few good ones lately but they’re a few in between the dreck of CGI… Trivisa this year was good… ending was clearly a middle finger to China’s political influence… jim mentioned Drug War earlier which is probably the best Chinese action neo-noir film since the HK glory days

      • Lt_Cobretti

        I’ll definitely be checking out Trivisa, sounds fantastic.

  • jim

    Oh well…what a damn shame…..Thanks for such a thorough heads up AlTeo…sounds like another film which tried to do too many things..Lam should either go down the OTT sci-fifantasy route (and I think Tsui Hark is better at that) or else stick with gritty violent neo noir street thrillers which is what he does best. I thought Wild City was uneven. Maybe ten years is too long to be away..?….As for Woo’s forth coming Manhunt: I honestly think Woo went off the boil a long time ago…..So have all these guys….apart from Johnnie To…Johnnie To is now officially the last man standing..Disliked his last one but I just rewatched Drug War again…Better and better..It seems obvious to me that Johnnie To was always head and shoulders above LamWooHark & co….Without Johnnie To, Hong Kong cinema is pretty much washed up…. All the young turks are South Korean.

    • AlTeo

      Welcome mate… yep it’s a case of too many cooks in the broth, made weirder when Lam is apparently the sole writer himself… Wild City was quite uneven in parts but I found it mostly enjoyable. Looks like Lam really lost the plot here.

      Woo on the other hand, I’m optimistic but cautious, Manhunt is his true return to gritty territory since Hard-Boiled, I think. His following Hollywood and China excursions, both good and duds, arguably belong to different genres so I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt this time around.

      Drug War was great, could be a modern classic, it’s probably the first Chinese film I’ve really enjoyed thoroughly since the old HK glory days. I may put up a review on it soon. The Koreans seem to be taking over the action guard nicely, I can’t wait for Asura: The City of Vengeance..

      • jim

        Shooting Drug War in China seems to have given Johnnie a whole new way of working but it has more to do with wide open spaces than anything else.A big change from the precise, economic style he perfected in crowded built up HK. Drug War is an epic film, an instant classic with so much going on it’s hard to believe it’s well under 2hrs long….. and he found a way to accommodate the authorities without becoming a propagandist. It’s one of my favourite films…No reason it shouldn’t be on the same short list as Heat.