Hong Kong Cinema

City on Fire

  • Made: 1987
  • Format: DVD
  • Region: Region 2 PAL
  • Release Date: 25th April 2005
  • Company: Hong Kong Legends (Contender)
  • Length: 102 minutes
  • Picture: 16:9 Anamorphic Widescreen
  • Language: Cantonese (5.1), English Dubbed (5.1)
  • Extras: Interactive menus, trailers, picture gallery, Bey Logan commentary, interviews with Andrew Lau and Roy Cheung
  • Classification: 18


Ringo Lam


Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Carrie Ng, Roy Cheung, Sun Yueh, Ho Ka-Kui, Tsui Kam-Kong

These days, City on Fire receives as much attention for its influence over Reservoir Dogs as it does for its own artistic merits. For better or for worse, this film will always remain a footnote in the sycophantic tributes of Tarantino fans that have trawled through the vaults of Asian cinema for his inspiration.

Director Ringo Lam has always had a stormy relationship with critics and moviegoers alike for his dark and gritty style, plus his loose comments (notably over Tiananmen Square, plus the acting ability of Andy Lau and Jean Claude Van-Damme). For every box office hit to his name (Prison on Fire, Full Contact, Full Alert) he has come close to bankrupting a studio with spectacular flops (Undeclared War, Touch and Go, Burning Paradise)! It was Lam's success with Aces Go Places 4 (HK $27m) that gave Karl Maka the confidence to give him full artistic licence to match a proper budget. The result was City on Fire (1987). It took a respectable HK $19.7m in a year dominated by Jackie Chan vehicles grossing in excess of HK $30m (Armour of God, Project A 2). However, the initial success was enough to generate three spin-offs with Prison on Fire, School on Fire and Prison on Fire 2.

The late eighties were also a good time for star Chow Yun-Fat, who was consistently generating box office attention with his work for John Woo. Chow managed to scoop Best Actor for a second consecutive year with his performance in City on Fire, after winning in 1986 with the fantastic A Better Tomorrow. Ringo Lam also won best director for his output, but Danny Lee was unfortunate not to win Best Supporting Actor (he was one of eight other nominations for the film).


Chow Yun-Fat plays the undercover cop who wants out and Danny Lee plays the bad guy who is actually quite a good egg after all. The bad guy wants to steal jewellery and the undercover cop is busy infiltrating the gang and gaining their trust. The undercover cop story has always been a popular feature in Hong Kong actions movies, with the likes of Hard Boiled, Infernal Affairs and Cop on a Mission all fine examples. I would like to write more on the subtler elements of the plot, such as Chow's rocky romance, and the way in which Lam portrays his characters (both good and bad) as victims of their circumstances, but I'm guessing that you are impatiently reading this waiting for the Tarantino comments.


This film was completed two years before Lee and Chow were to stand toe to toe in the finest action movie ever to come out of Hong Kong, The Killer. Whilst it lacks the slick pyrotechnics of the latter, it clearly shares the same stylistic themes. From the cheesy saxophone to bullet ridden scenes of loyalty and brotherhood, it is all here. The Chow Yun-Fat's performance is electric and the action is occasionally brutal. Unfortunately, the action can look sedated next to the excessive early nineties violence from the likes of Woo and Lam (e.g. Hard Boiled, Full Contact). If you are able to overlook this fact, the neon Hong Kong nights provide a superb backdrop for the climactic jewellery heist in City on Fire.



City of Fire is regularly cited (and marketed) as being the inspiration behind Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs. It is also teeming with controversy, as Tarantino has never publicly acknowledged the influence of City on Fire. This has even led some movie fans to take drastic measures - Mike White made a website and short movie on the subject!

'Inspiration' behind Reservoir Dogs:

•  The robbers are jewel thieves. In both movies the girl who sets off the alarm is shot

•  After the undercover cop is shot in the stomach, he responds by killing his shooter (a cop in City of Fire , a woman in Reservoir Dogs)

•  The undercover cop and bad guy develop a close bond and in the closing moments we see the cop revealing his true identity

•  Both films climax with the jewel thieves retiring to a warehouse surrounded by cops

•  Both films involve a Mexican stand-off

• You can also see several shots are directly lifted from the last twenty minutes of City on Fire.


Once again this is a superb edition from Hong Kong Legends. The picture is a superb 16:9 anamorphic widescreen feature with dual language options (Cantonese with English subs and English dubbed - DD5.1). The regular Bey Logan commentary slot is included along with two exclusive interviews with Andrew Lau and Roy 'Fight Back to School' Cheung. The excellent disc also includes trailers, picture gallery, animated menus and scene select.


Please do not watch this to see whether it is like Reservoir Dogs. That would be to completely miss the point. Most of the similarity only comes from the last twenty minutes of City on Fire. Watch this movie because you want to see a hungry Chow Yun-Fat at the top of his game, under the helm of the ever challenging Ringo Lam. This does not feature a 'finest hour' performance from any of the lead protagonists, but it is guaranteed to be engaging and hugely entertaining. For those who yearn for the gritty subtlety of A Better Tomorrow rather than the popcorn excess of the early nineties bullet ballets, this definitely and commendably falls into the former.