'm a sucker for cop movies, but I've never been all that
enthusiastic about firefighter movies. I mean, besides watching firefighters
battle fires, what's the point? And really, how many different ways to show a
fire ravaging a building and getting hit with water can you possible take before
you start looking for a good ol fashion cops and robbers shootout? 1997's
"Lifeline" is a firefighter movie, although there's only one fire
sequence in the whole movie and that takes up the film's entire second half.
More than that, the film is a good ol fashion drama.
Ching Wan Lau stars as Yau Sui, the "boss" of a
firehouse that is considered jinx because their bosses keep getting hurt. After
their current boss is paralyzed during a rescue, Cheung (Alex Fong), a
hardnosed, by-the-book chief takes over. Of the group of close-knit
firefighters, Yau Sui is the "save them all at all costs" type; the
station's only female firefighter (Ruby Wong) has a husband that isn't sure
about her profession; and there's an eager to please rookie who may not be ready
for the job. Worst, people keep telling Cheung that his firehouse is jinxed.
Leading up to the film's central set piece, the screenplay
by Nai-Hoi Yau ("Wu Yen")
concentrates on the personal lives of its individual characters. We learn that
the source of Cheung's crankiness is the disintegration of his family; worst,
his ex-wife is now trying to return his daughter to him while she pursues
another marriage. Yau Sui is chasing pretty doctor Annie Chan (Carmen Lee), who
is trying to decide between him and her cheating doctor boyfriend. And Ruby Wong
(whose character I don't recall being called anything other than
"Madam") is unsure if she still wants to live with a husband that is
trying to trick her into having a baby so she'll be forced to quit her job.
By the time the movie shifts to its one and only set piece,
we know enough about the characters to actually care rather they survive or not.
This is a necessary thing because the movie spends its entire second half on a
massive fire at a clothing warehouse, with our firefighters trapped inside and
being pursued by ferocious flames. It's all very well done and points should be
given to director Johnnie To ("The
Mission") and his crew, not to mention his actors, for what must have
been some pretty harrowing scenes. How did these guys manage to survive?
I counted at least a half dozen times when giant walls of fire completely engulf
one character or another.
As usual, Ching Wan Lau ("Black
Mask") proves that he has everything it takes to be an effective
leading man and then some. It's to Lau's credit that his scenes with Carman Lee
the Wolf") makes Lee look wholly unprepared for this thing called
"acting". Is Carman Lee even a real human being, or did the filmmakers
use a mannequin? I'm still not sure. Which leads me to think that the film would
have benefited greatly had Ruby Wong (who would go on to star with Lau in the "Running
out of Time" series) been used as Lau's love interest instead. There is
real promise there, but there isn't any between Lau and Lee.
Despite his unflattering (and dare I say it, discoesque?)
choice of off-duty wardrobe, Alex Fong ("The
Storm Riders") is appropriately somber as the new chief of the jinxed
firehouse. His transformation from a strict boss who was rumored to have pushed
a firefighter so far that he died to being just "one of the boys" is
believable. With the exception of the pretty but oh-so-unemotional Carman Lee,
the entire cast of "Lifeline" is exceptional.
Which leads me to this observation: I don't think Hong Kong
filmmakers spend enough time casting background actors. I've always had this
nagging feeling that characters that appear onscreen in Hong Kong movies for a
line or two got there by accident, and not because someone cast them based on
talent. How else to explain their awfulness in the brief couple of seconds that
they do appear onscreen?
"Lifeline" has some impressive fire effects, and
the cast and crew deserves credit for pulling off the fire stunts, especially
considering that the Hong Kong film industry has never been known for safety.
The nearly hour-long sequence at the blazing warehouse is a massive undertaking,
and To uses the darkness of the warehouse to great affect. We feel as if we're
in there with these people, braving through the lack of oxygen, the near
blinding darkness of the situation, and trying desperately to claw our way to
Maybe I should watch firefighter movies more often...