January 14, 2015

Out of Inferno (2013)

I have long been quite a fan of the Pang brothers, Danny and Oxide, whose inventive low-budget films like Re-cycle, Bangkok Dangerous and The Eye have impressed me with their imagination, pacing and energy. In recent years their output has gradually becoming more expensive and commercial, including an American  remake of Bangkok Dangerous starring Nicolas Cage, and the high-profile wuxia sequel The Storm Warriors. This trend towards commercial populist cinema reaches its apogee with Out of Inferno, a fire-fighting disaster movie that's the closest thing in their catalogue yet to a stereotypical Hollywood blockbuster. On the one hand it's good to see the Pangs succeeding after almost 25 years of filmmaking. On the other, it's a shame to see so much talent and time spent on such an ordinary film.

A devastating fire breaks out in a Guangzhou office tower. Firefighter Tai-Kwan (Lau Ching-Wan, credited here as Sean Lau) arrives on the scene, only to discover his pregnant wife Si-Lok (Angelica Lee) is trapped on one floor, and his estranged brother Keung (Louis Koo) is trapped on another. Together they, and a mismatched band of survivors, must find a way to escape as the fire grows too devastating for the firefighters to handle.

If that brief synopsis conjured up any images for you, I can pretty much guarantee those images are accurate. There are no surprises in Out of Inferno. There is not one creative or inventive bone in its body. This is pure commercial filmmaking, designed to cheat a mass audience out of their money in return for 107 minutes of explosions, stunts, high-stakes drama and a musical score so derivative that James Horner's lawyers probably have the producers on speed dial. Its theatrical release was even presented in stereoscopic 3D: pretty much the required plumage for a 21st century blockbuster in the mating season.

Functionally the film does what it needs to, but the question is whether that's enough. It would have been nice to have seen at least one or two surprises, but such surprises never eventuate. Every time it looks like a bold storytelling choice is about to be made, the Pangs pull their punches. The cast of trapped survivors is pretty much a who's-who of disaster movies: a father and son pair of security guards, a cowardly doctor, a distraught couple looking for their missing daughter, and even a pair of opportunistic jewel thieves on the run.

The fire sequences and the stunts are impressive enough, but not so much that they take attention away from the film's numerous shortcomings. It all must have been a weird flashback for Lau Ching-Wan, who headlined Hong Kong's last hit firefighter film; Johnnie To's Lifeline back in 1997. That was a much cheaper, and much more engaging film than this.

I'm not sure if it was intended as a deliberate comment to please mainland censors, but I couldn't help but notice that Keung's glossy, expensive fire-prevention business - he begins the film courting private investors - utterly fails to protect his own building, and it's the state-funded and operated fire department that comes in to save the day.

Out of Inferno was the final film by the late screenwriter Szeto Kam-Yuen, and the film is dedicated to his memory. His screenplays included several contemporary Hong Kong classics including The Longest Nite, SPL, Accident and Motorway. It's kind of a shame that his final work was so generic. Certainly he had demonstrated many times that he was capable of better. I'm pretty sure everyone involved - the directors, the production staff, the cast - have demonstrated themselves capable of better. It's not the worst film I've ever seen. Hell, it's probably not the worst film I've seen this month. It is, however, utterly ordinary - and with this kind of talent ordinary is simply not good enough.

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