Even though I'm a big fan of Hong Kong action cinema, for some reason most Hong Kong police thrillers don't really have what it takes to make me sit up and take notice. Up until now Johnnie To's work has been the only positive exception to the rule, but Dante Lam is sure to give him a little extra competition. And looking at Fire Of Conscience, his latest film to date, he's doing a pretty good job at that.
Dante Lam has been playing the field for some time now. I've been following his work from a distance and even though he never really impressed me before, he's made some good, solid stuff over a wide range of genres, building himself a respectable oeuvre. When in need of simple but enjoyable filler, Lam is always a good bet. The only thing missing was that one film that would take him to the next level. Fire Of Conscience could very well be that film.
The film plays as a mix of Johnnie To's stylish crime cinema with Wai-keung Lau's slicker pieces. The blend delivers a film that has plenty of commercial appeal without becoming too cheap or plain boring. It's a tricky balance but Lam knows to walk that line like no other it seems. The result is a stylish action film that keeps a solid balance between fast pacing, style and macho gunfights.
The story itself is not all that interesting though. Take a worn down cop beaten by the death of his wife and a big case with quite a few parties involved, add a mole, mix it all up and you have the tale of a million other police thrillers already out there. But like most genre cinema, it's not so much the setup that matters, but how well it is all executed.
Lam's visual intentions are clear from the start. The first scene is a perfect mixture of dreamy, floating To-like camera work in a bullet-time setup. It sets the tone for the rest of the film, where good action cinematography is mixed with more stylish visual tricks. Lam's visual style is clearly not as dark as To's but he still manages to keep a level of grit in there. Settings are gorgeous, as is the use of color throughout the film. And Lam makes sure the visuals remain challenging throughout while ensuring visual consistency, which will surely please more conservative audiences.
The soundtrack is less in your face, but fits the bill. It's a pretty simple score that works when it has to but mostly remains lingering in the background. Acting on the other hand is strong an vibrant, with Leon Lai getting all needed space to display his talents. Supporting roles filled by Richie Ren and Kai Chi Liu add good extra value. Especially the latter does a surprisingly good job with the somewhat over the top character he needs to portray.
Fire Of Conscience is a police action/thriller done right. The action scenes are impressive and snappy, the character drama is solid and it's a visual treat from start to finish. Believability is sometimes sacrificed to make the whole mix a bit spicier but that's hardly a negative point. If you're watching this film to get a realistic view of police work you haven't been paying attention to all the promotional efforts surrounding this film and you'd do best to let go of those hopes.
Dante Lam finally delivers a film that mixes enjoyable, adrenaline-inducing action coupled with a more stylish and classy exterior. Add solid performances from the whole cast and you've got a winner. I can only hope Lam continues on this path, though I won't mind if he keeps jumping genres from time to time. The police thriller genre isn't actually my favorite terrain, but when done this well I won't mind sampling some extras once in a while.