Where’s the fire? It’s at Well Go USA, which has “GIF”-ted us with a bit from its lastest action-packed Asian-packed flick, Sky on Fire. “Die Hard Whatever?” you may be thinking. Well, yes, but in typical Hong Kong fashion there’s a lot more going on besides. Ringo Lam (whose 1987 classic City on Fire inspired, or “inspired,” if you want to get up in Quentin Tarantino’s face about it, Reservoir Dogs five years later) directs a hard-hitting melodrama that pits a widowed security officer (Into the Badlands and Warcraft co-star Daniel Wu) at a medical research firm against criminals who have boosted cancer-curing stem cells. Or so it seems, as warring agendas are uncovered “first do no harm” goes right out the window. Lam, whose other credits include another scorching Chow Yun-Fat thriller, Full Contact (1992), and Jean-Claude Van Damme’s fine Maximum Risk (1996), has been off duty for stretches, and while this isn’t his best work it’s good to have him back in the driver’s seat when the film finally accelerates past some clumsy scene-setting.
Johnnie To, whose Drug War (2012) has become a cable staple of late, continues to crank out exciting, offbeat films. Three also has a medical setting, in this case, a hospital, where a bad guy (Wallace Chung) who’s deliberately shot himself waits for his cronies to bust him out. As the tension mounts, conflict simmers between the cop determined to bring the villain in (Louis Koo) and the surgeon equally obstinate about treating him. The slo-mo climax, a setpiece if there ever was one, resolves their fates in suitably spectacular fashion. “Master Director Johnnie To” (the shoe fits) and the main characters are feted in behind-the-scenes extras.
Chinese filmmakers use 3D more expressively, and excitingly, than anyone else, so it’s a shame that Sword Master is another disc missing a vital dimension in its domestic release. Director Derek Yee and producer Tsui Hark are dab hands at 3D, and I missed being beaten around the eyes. But: the disc does have a great DTS:X audio track to immerse the ears, and the image quality is up to the company’s usual high standards. The story (based on the 1977 hit Death Duel, which starred Yee) doesn’t quite hang together, as a motley group of characters crystallizes around a guilty swordsman who tired of the assassin’s life and is now a wandering vagrant. But story, and some oddball tonal shifts, are secondary to some over-the-top, CGI-laced fight sequences.
I didn’t know much about 2011’s “Mekong Massacre,” a notorious episode that erupted in Asia’s drug-producing “Golden Triangle” in 2011, and after watching the Chinese epic Operation Mekong I’m pretty sure I only got a partial view, favorable to China. Still, Dante Lam’s telling of the tale is relentless, as Chinese operatives take down, action scene by action scene, a dastardly Thai drug lord who dispatched thirteen Chinese fishermen caught up in a raid. Sordid scenes of degradation take a backseat to vengeance, with a carnage-wracked shopping mall shootout a highlight. The movie is way more Michael Bay than, say, Sam Fuller, but it has undeniable visceral appeal, and a good making-of details the whole bloody thing.
The most thoughtful film of the bunch is the Korean film Tunnel, a kind of echo to Billy Wilder’s acrid masterpiece Ace in the Hole (1951). Here a car salesman (Ha Jung-woo, of The Handmaiden) is stuck in a shoddily built tunnel that’s collapsed, as efforts to free him run afoul of bureaucratic bungling and media sensationalism. With only his daughter’s birthday cake to eat, our protagonist allies himself with a rescue worker, as his chance of survival dwindles. This is a familiar, evergreen story. But writer-director Seong-hun Kim (of the excellent A Hard Day) takes aim at local politics and hits his target, providing a fresh perspective, and Jung-woo is sympathetic in a much different part than the one he played in Park Chan-wook’s masterpiece.