By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Sky on Fire” stars fast-rising Hong Kong action actor Daniel Wu (originally from California). The film isn’t really about his character — the head of security at a top-secret medical research facility. The film isn’t really about Joseph Chang, as the headstrong truck driver Chia-Chia, or Amber Kuo as his sister, struggling with cancer. The movie doesn’t make itself about any human beings. It’s devoted to towering skyscrapers, droning helicopters, fast cars with screeching tires, and swallowing darkness to highlight all the above. Bullets fly. Smoke fills the screen. Humanity itself seems very much lost at the bottom of the mix.
Ringo Lam made a name for himself with dynamic, intense, and matter-of-factly over-the-top Hong Kong films, notably “City on Fire,” from which Quentin Tarantino liberally liberated ideas when he made his breakthrough “Reservoir Dogs.” Tarantino, though, remembered to keep his crooks (and the occasional undercover cop) fascinating through their kinetic dialogue about everything from life, to death, to Top 40 radio in the 1970s.
Lam’s done a better job with his onscreen people over the long haul. But here, he forgot to give them humanity. They function as props.
We don’t especially care where the top-secret formula to cure disease came from, or who tries to steal it, or why. Round and round it goes, sinking in subterfuge, and the only sign of significance is from Kuo as Jen, the sick woman. She looks quite plausibly sick but in that overdriven manner, silent on the surface but roiling beneath it, that you see in much high drama. She’s an exaggerated figure, and like everybody else onscreen, it’s hard to get to know her.
So the cure-all, plotted for, stolen, and then kicked around for the remainder of the film’s 100 minutes, proves no more than a MacGuffin. The MacGuffin — a term popularized by Alfred Hitchcock — is some prize (or sometimes, some goal, instead of a physical object), which distinguishes itself in a story, simply because the major characters want it. It does not have to have any particular meaning in and of itself. It does not have to mean anything outside the story. The storyteller must arrange for such things.
Ringo Lam got his MacGuffin, and he got his spectacle. Too bad he left subtler, nobler things on some forgotten mental plane. Or the proverbial cutting-room floor.
“Sky on Fire” opens Dec. 2 at Regal Meridian Cinemas, 1501 7th Avenue, Seattle.
Andrew can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.