Firestorm (2013)
Well Go USA // Unrated // $29.98 // September 23, 2014
Review by Tyler Foster | posted September 13, 2014
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Graphical Version
In the center of Hong Kong, a gang in ghoulish masks attacks an armored van. Inspector Lui (Andy Lau) and his team are seconds away from taking control of the situation and bringing the criminals down when Tou Sing Bong (Lam Ka Tung), a former petty thief just out of prison, drives around the corner and crashes into Inspector Lui's car. In the ensuing chaos, not only do the criminals escape, but a civilian is murdered. Inspector Lui, one of the force's straightest straight arrows, is furious and suspects Bong of being part of the gang, but Bong insists it was an accident. Lui is forced to let him go, but has him tailed, setting off a dizzying string of events that will change the lives of both men, and leave a trail of blood and violence in their wake.

I'm no expert on Chinese action movies, so maybe this is more common than I think it is, but Firestorm feels like a throwback to the operatic melodrama of John Woo. The action, while not nearly as good as Woo in his prime, is ridiculous and plentiful, the blood runs in rivers, and the entire movie is dripping with the existential anguish of Inspector Lui as his personal code of ethics is tested by a gang without any. Although the film drags on a bit too long, and whatever it's trying to say about morality is kind of half-assed, the film is consistently entertaining. It's not a certainty that director Alan Yuen intends for the viewer to enjoy the movie for its overbaked conflict, but it's also definitely not an ironic enjoyment -- the movie's absolute earnestness in the face of cars and bodies flying around the screen is a flavor Woo specialized in. There's even an action scene interrupted by a truck full of pigeons, possibly a nod to Woo's beloved doves.

The first half of the recipe is Lau as Liu, the only man on the force who doesn't drink on the job just to stick it or have a broken home to return to each night. Lau's angular face and trim figure suggest a man of precision; even when he acts casual in front of Bong (not just a suspect but one of his childhood classmates), there's a sense that he's just imitating friendliness he's seen elsewhere. Bong, on the other hand, is a nice foil: a casual, easygoing guy whose relaxed demeanor seems to earn him quite a bit of leeway with his long-suffering girlfriend, Yan (Chen Yao). She waited for him four years while he was in prison, and she's even set him up with a job at a restaurant to get back on his feet.

Part of the reason the movie's thematic underpinnings feel underdeveloped is that the focus leans heavily in favor of Liu over Bong. It becomes clear early on that Liu's suspicions are correct, and that Bong's gang is likely led by Cao Nam (Jun Hu), a wealthy prick who avoided jail at least three times, and even sued the police department for harassing him. When confronted, Bong has his reasons for returning to a life of crime, but his motivation never quite resonates. Lau is far more invested, hairline cracks forming in his solemn shell until he finally shatters. In the second half of the movie, every moment with Lau is magnetic, his eyes alight with wild energy. It's a performance that borders on parody, but Lau has a steady hand. To even mention many of the characters who influence his spiral would be to give away some of the movie's most delightful exploitation-style moments, so I will remain tight-lipped.

Although the actual choreography of many of the film's action moments is forgettable (a hand-to-hand fight between Lau and Lam being the worst offender), they're executed with so much brutal, dynamic energy that it's hard to really be upset. A gunfight in a stairwell involving a rocket launcher sends Lau soaring through the air six or seven times, later spilling out onto the roof where some terrible CG can't ruin some of the gravity-defying stunts that follow. Really, the entire movie has Lau taking a hell of a beating, flipped and spun by shockwaves, flung into cars and buildings, and behind the wheel in several crashes. The movie builds to an all-out orgy of violence in the middle of a crowded square, with too many casualties to count. Here, the CG is even worse, to the point that it must be criticized, but it's a minor issue. Yuen tops his confection off with a note of perfect irony, leavened by twisted sincerity -- another one of the film's many entertaining contradictions.

The Blu-ray
Firestorm gets black-and-white artwork of Andy Lau standing in the middle of downtown chaos with a rifle, a bit of flame or smoke curling out of the barrel. Might've been a bit more visually interesting to highlight any fire in the image, considering the film is called Firestorm. Instead, only the title is highlighted, in red, and the entire image is copied over to an embossed slipcover that makes nice use of matte and glossy finish for a classy feel. The disc comes in an eco-friendly Vortex case, and there is an insert advertising other Well Go USA titles.

The Video and Audio
I've seen quite a few Well Go USA Blu-rays in my time at DVDTalk, and most of them had banding issues. I'm pleased to report that Firestorm's 2.39:1 1080p AVC transfer is one of the first times I didn't spot any. Detail is razor-sharp, colors appear accurate, and no other compression issues intrude on the experience. The spectacular image is assisted by a top-notch DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track in Cantonese / Mandarin. It's an aggressive, immersive mix filled with zinging gunshots, flying rocks, meaty punches, and window-rattling explosions. It's nothing wildly unexpected, but it is a a fine example of what a viewer would want out of an action movie mix. English subtitles, of course, are provided, as is a Dolby Digital 2.0 mix, for some reason.

The Extras
Although the menu seems to list quite a few production featurettes, the packaging's summary "Making-of" (21:20) is more accurate, with each menu option referring to a single chapter of one video. As with almost every Asian Blu-ray I've reviewed, these are promotional featurettes, likely pulled from the film's website, that offer a cursory glance into the making of the movie. Each features the same intro and outro, as well, which is very tiring. Not particularly insightful, but maybe worth a single watch.

Trailers for Iceman, Rigor Mortis, and Special ID play before the main menu, and are selectable from there as well. An original theatrical trailer for Firestorm is also included.

I may not have engaged with Firestorm exactly how director Alan Yuen intended, but it's not an ironic enjoyment either. Firestorm's blend of anguish and action recalls the same kind of overheated sorrow of The Killer. Firestorm isn't nearly that good, but it's one of the more entertaining action movies I've seen all year, and although the extras are perfunctory, the presentation is excellent. Recommended.

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