Home Video Hovel- Fire of Conscience
My impression, based on nothing more than years and years of watching lots of movies both good and bad, is that in order to make a good one, you have to be interested in more than one idea. Since cinema is an art form that blends a number of other art forms, doing it well means keeping more than one ball in the air at a time. Dante Lam’s new film Fire of Conscience, like so many other films before it, forgets that.
Fire of Conscience is an action film. Viewed only in those terms, it’s far from terrible. Lam clearly knows how to navigate chaos and understands the visceral thrill of violence, even when it is disgusting (and sometimes because it is disgusting). The most fitting word to describe the action in this film would be competent. Problematically, though, the movie is so focused on these set-pieces, one suspects that it believes them to be better than they are. What is, in truth, an adequate portrayal of ideas we’ve seen before (a shootout conducted while climbing down the frame of a half-constructed building, for instance) are presented to us as if our minds should be blown.
The victim of this focus on gunfights and explosions is the plot. The story and the development of the characters are insultingly oversimplified, occasionally even to the point of simply being stated out loud and then abandoned. One major character’s financial motivations for turning to crime are introduced and dismissed so abruptly and clumsily, it’s almost as if they were added under protest.
To the extent that it is important, the story is about two police inspectors, one a good man named Manfred from the homicide division numbed and hollowed by the recent murder of his wife, the other a corrupt and seemingly immoral schemer named Kee from narcotics. When a murder for which Manfred’s partner is under suspicion brushes up against Kee’s narcotics case, the two work both together and against each other until the friction leads to a literally fiery climax.
Frustratingly, there’s a lot of potential in a plot like that. Both men are who they are because of their relationships to the women they love but each has reacted differently. There are questions posed by the screenplay about the nature of police work. Is it a calling or just a job? Is it about duty or proficiency? Once again, however, the movie seems to go out of its way to tamp down these issues and be as flat a work as possible.
The performances – specifically the two leads – are examples of, on the one hand, how the film could have been better and, on the other, why it is not. Richie Ren, who plays Kee, does his best to elevate the film he’s in. He appears to be the only person involved who understands the tragedy and sympathy of his character, the film’s villain. He says volumes through inaction while the film around him strains to be as loud as possible. Meanwhile, Leon Lai, as Manfred, delivers a shallow performance, as if Lam asked him to don a facial expression that sums up the feeling “haunted” and then just walk through the movie with it. By the end, I was decidedly rooting for the bad guy.
This film lacks cohesion in myriad ways. It plays like a bunch of ideas someone got after watching Martin Scorsese and Michael Mann films tossed together without any thought to narrative or thematic fidelity. Action fans will find plenty to enjoy but even they will be left wanting more. True fans know that a good action film must first be a good film. Fire of Conscience is not the latter and so it’s not really the former either.