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After the success of his much praised “The Beast Stalker”, director Dante Lam continues his quest to prove himself the leading purveyor of hardcore Hong Kong thrills with “Fire of Conscience”. The hard hitting film certainly pulls no punches when it comes to violent action, with choreographer Chin Kar Lok taking the same kind of gritty yet explosive approach he did with Derek Yee’s “One Nite in Mongkok”. The film has an impressive cast, headed up by popular stars Leon Lai and Richie Jen, with support from Michelle Ye (who recently won Best Supporting Actress at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Soi Cheang’s “Accident”), Taiwanese actress Vivian Hsu (“The Knot”, “Hot Summer Days”), Mainland actor Wang Baoqiang (“Equation of Love and Death”), and Liu Kai Chi (also in Lam’s “The Beast Stalker”).
Leon Lai takes on the role of rough, tough detective Manfred, known for his ill treatment of suspects and who is obsessed with finding the pickpocket who stabbed his wife to death some months back. The killings of a policeman and a prostitute, that initially seem to be unrelated, bring him together with Richie Jen’s suave and manipulative Inspector Kee, an entirely different breed of cop who nevertheless has a number of skeletons in his own closet. Although the two seem to be on the same side, when the investigation starts to point towards a gang of weapons smugglers it becomes clear that there is a traitor in the ranks.
“Fire of Conscience” is reminiscent in many ways of Dante Lam’s 1999 classic “Beast Cops”, dealing as it does with corruption, morality, and the question as to what it means to be a good policeman in complex and troubled times. Although both Lai’s street smart crook basher and Jen’s slick ladder climber are quite obviously set up as different sides of the coin, the film avoids the expected good cop bad cop clichés, and makes a real effort to explore their motivations, and more specifically, their demons. Both are interesting, flawed figures, and it’s to Lam’s credit that he for the most part avoids drawing any big moral conclusions, depicting both men as sympathetic and driven. This does mean that the film is quite bleak in places, and pulls no punches in its dealing with police brutality, the torturing of suspects and the rot that sets in when good men go bad, whether for the right reasons or not. Thankfully, Lam aims for character drama rather than melodrama, and though the plot is essentially predictable, it does engage and manages a reasonable of twists and reversals along the way. Though film is not quite as consistent and coherent as “The Beast Stalker”, with a rather obvious climatic scene, it is still considerably more thoughtful and more ambitious than the vast majority of other recent Hong Kong genre outings.
Of course, the film does have its villains, most of whom are more straightforward figures, gun and knife toting psychopaths. While this does perhaps prevent it from being a truly searching exploration of police methods and morality, it does provide the protagonists with plenty of cannon fodder, and the film is an exhilaratingly action packed affair, with Lam’s direction tight and fast moving. Chin Kar Lok’s choreography is superb, giving the numerous set pieces a grounded, hard edged feel without relying too much upon the usual shaky camerawork. Things do get very bloody in places, as policemen and thugs are gunned down in impressive numbers, or are quite literally blown to pieces by grenades and the like, with Lam and Chin showing a distinct liking for explosives. The film features several real standout sequences, including a botched raid on a restaurant which sees the supporting cast cruelly decimated and which is arguably one of the best Hong Kong gun battles of recent years.
Still, the blood and bullets never quite drown out the character work, and as a result “Fire of Conscience” is a film which not only thrills, but grips. While it may be a touch downbeat and angst-ridden for viewers looking for straightforward, guilt free fun, it delivers an engaging, measured mixture of action and tormented male psyches. Lam directs with style and verve, and the film certainly confirms him as one of the most interesting currently working in the thriller genre.
Dante Lam (director) / Dante Lam, Wai Lun Ng (screenplay)
CAST: Leon Lai … Captain Manfred
Richie Ren … Inspector Kee
Baoqiang Wang … Huang Yang
Vivian Hsu … Ellen
Kai Chi Liu … Cheung-on
Michelle Ye … May
Charles Ying … Sam