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Here’s the Movie That Gave Us Quentin Tarantino’s Career

Here's the Movie That Gave Us Quentin Tarantino's Career

READ MORE: 5 Must-See Asian Films From the New York Asian Film Festival

In 1987, up-and-coming Hong Kong filmmaker Ringo Lam directed a squalid crime film rife with violence and nebulous morality. “City on Fire,” which is screening as part of the New York Asian Film Festival’s special tribute to Lam, stars Chow Yun-fat and Danny Lee as an undercover cop and murderous thief who get chummy during the planning, execution, and fallout of a botched heist during which Chow kills an innocent person. In the end, Chow tells Lee the truth, and Lee shoots Chow in the head. (Moral of the story: don’t be honest.)

Two years later, John Woo released “The Killer,” a milestone of Hong Kong cinema that reinvented action movies and introduced the world to a new way of rendering violence — with almost loving intimacy, without dulling the impact. Woo became an international sensation, Lam helmed a Jean-Claude Van Damme film that bombed, and western audiences forgot “City on Fire.”

But Quentin Tarantino didn’t forget. The motor-mouthed progenitor of the VHS generation of filmmakers seemed to have studied the film with fawning assiduousness, absorbing its visceral punch (“BAM BAM BAM BAM BAM,” to quote Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde) and crimson-colored soul, manipulating and contorting them to fit his own devious vision of honor among lowlifes. His debut feature, “Reservoir Dogs,” not only set the precedent for Tarantino’s whiplash-inducing dialogue and abrupt bloodshed, but, for sharp-eyed moviegoers, also marked the first instance of the filmmaker’s flare for lifting shots, scenes, and ideas from his pulpy influences and suturing them into his own creation, like Victor Frankenstein’s culturally-savvy cousin.

On its own terms, Lam’s ragged film is pretty good, but not remarkable. As a sordid action flick — what the kids today call “gritty” — it stands in stark contrast to the smooth poetic style of John Woo’s “The Killer,” in which Chow and Lee reverse roles, with Chow playing the killer and Lee the cop. Woo, who helped change Hong Kong cinema with “A Better Tomorrow” and the one-two wallop of “The Killer” and “Hardboiled,” depicts the allure and unspoken moral code of Hong Kong’s underworld and neon-steeped back rooms with the sincerity of a Greek tragedy. He presents violence as an innate human quality, something people can turn to as a career as well as a means of self-expression. The various gangsters and low-lifes and law enforcement agents deal in death the way writers use words.

“City on Fire,” still Lam’s best film (and his only good one, unless you really dig “Simon Sez”), doesn’t have the mark of an auteur like “The Killer” or “Reservoir Dogs.” It almost feels ripe for salvage, a series of cool moments strewn about a messy narrative kept bearable by the inherent excitement of the endlessly watchable Chow Yun-fat shooting people, as well as Yun-fat’s chemistry with Danny Lee. The moments exhumed by Tarantino are pretty obvious, but he repurposes them deftly. The botched heist around which both films revolve, Yun-fat/Tim Roth taking a bullet to the belly, and the fatal Mexican standoff with which both end are the most obvious echoes, while other parts, notably a scene of Harvey Keitel/Danny Lee unloading a pair of pistols into a cop car’s windshield are lifted just because they’re really cool.

Tarantino laces Lam’s basic plot with his penchant for Snap! Crackle! Pop! culture references and impeccable sense of rhythm. Lam’s films moves in jerks and fits, a burst of violence here, some exposition there, the sad sax score looming like a drunkard before a super-duper ’80s synth comes rollicking in. Tarantino has never tried to hide his love for ’70s cinema, and this is part of what makes his take on “City on Fire” so interesting. The visual and aural style bears little semblance to Lam’s, or any other Hong Kong filmmaker for that matter. From the soundtrack to the roving widescreen compositions, Tarantino riffs on De Palma, Scorsese, and “The Taking of Pelham One Two Three,” while his lacerating dialogue (some of which admittedly feels achingly clunky compared to his subsequent films) channels the noirs of the 1950s (“Kansas City Confidential,”  “The Big Combo”).

Tarantino drew influence from a bunch of films, as is his wont (and artistry), for “Reservoir Dogs.” He’s been most vocal about his debt to Stanley Kubrick’s “The Killing,” probably because “The Killing” is a classic and Kubrick a genius. But “City on Fire” isn’t “The Killing,” and Ringo Lam isn’t Stanley Kubrick (though Lam does have a cool name). Doing an homage to a film that you end up bettering is kind of weird, but by now Tarantino has made a career of it. Western audiences wouldn’t remember Lam’s film had Tarantino not extrapolated its better moments for his own.

“City on Fire” is a strange milestone in Hong Kong cinema, but not because it’s a masterpiece (it’s not), not because it’s unique or wholly original (it’s not), not because it’s the work of a great filmmaker (it’s not), and not because it engendered a new film movement (it didn’t). “City on Fire” is an important piece of Hong Kong cinema because it deeply inspired Tarantino, who drew inspiration and created one of the most important American films of all time (and the one that lionized indie films, to the chagrin of some). Lam, by way of Tarantino, helped bring a Hong Kong influence to American indies.

Also worth noting is that “City on Fire” remains one of the final films of its kind — sloppy, frantic Hong Kong action movie of cops and killers shooting it out on the streets and shouting blunt exposition with an exclamation point — before John Woo changed everything. It has a strange place in history, at once the seed from which an American film movement was cultivated, yet also a fairly forgettable example of ’80s Hong Kong action in the final fleeting moments before its reinvention.

“Reservoir Dogs” has entered the pop-culture canon, and Tarantino became the face of a new vivacious breed of movie directors. He remains the most-studied filmmaker in Europe and Asia, even over the filmmakers from whom he draws inspiration. Though way too many people continue to inaccurately talk about his films as sadistically violent action movies, he’s as well-known among casual moviegoers as Steven Spielberg. “The Killer” is now considered a classic by cinephiles, and helped bring Hong Kong films to western audiences. “City on Fire,” of course, lacks these accolades, its legacy now little more than fodder for movie trivia nights. That’s a shame: Tarantino found the elements of greatness in “City on Fire,” and for that it deserves lasting respect.

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Comments

ben

first, i’m a huge fan of QT and think Pulp Fiction, Basterds, Kill Bill and Reservoir Dogs are classics. BUT i am baffled at white folks still claiming RD wasn’t inspired/influenced by COF. BOTH MOVIES HAVE THE EXACT SAME PLOT, and some scenes described by characters in COF are actually depicted onscreen in RD (the "stick a knife in hand" scene, for example). i think RD is a totally superior film to COF — QT added so much more flair and cut out the fat — but to pretend like "there’s no way QT’s RD was influenced by COF" is just complete denial or ignorance.

Cinetone

Wow. What a poorly written article. Chuck Stephens is right on the money.

…And Johan and Mike, sorry to urst your bubble, but QT did see the film. He was a big HK cinema head, as was I, back at that time.

Sugar

There are references.

B. Smithee

This is a generous review; Tarantino plagiarised City on Fire for Reservoir Dogs, in some cases shot for shot. To the dissenters: Tarantino acknowledged this to John Landis when they we’re together at Sundance. In any other culture Tarantino would have been sued big-time. You can see landis’ explanation of this on "into the night with terry gillam and John landis"

Jaime

Note to self: Do not ever read anything by Greg Cwik again

Holmes Nygren

Not a fan of this kind of narrow cinephile hierarchy, where directors like Ringo Lam (with an unusually remarkable body of work) seem to exist only in relation to "hall of fame" brand names like Tarantino and Woo. The suggestion that City in Fire is the only Lam worth seeing is ridiculous and probably more speculation than experience. Even his Van Damme collaborations (the writer seems to know only Maximum Risk) deserve better. Not to mention Full Contact and many other highlights from Aces go Places IV to Burning Paradise. Lam had a good reputation long before Reservoir Dogs which is probably what got Tarantino interested in the first place.

Lauri

His only good one, "unless you really dig Simon Sez", what do you mean by that? Simon Sez is not a Ringo Lam film. Quite shallow stuff for those who want to know more about Lam’s career in Hong Kong and Hollywood, you’re reducing a profilic and talented filmmaker to footnote status.

parsyeb

two things:
1) This writer knows nothing of HK cinema. That’s, like, okay, but it makes claims about Lam’s stuff and Woo’s stuff a bit goofy.
2) To the QT fans, get your undies unbunched. Tarantino definitely did see the movie and definitely took several scenes, action beats, etc. from the movie. It’s, again, not a big deal, as it doesn’t diminish what’s unique or great about either film. The only people this should be a problem for are people who stress originality as some vital criteria for art (those people usually haven’t seen that many movies and don’t realize that the stuff they think is original generally has strong, if not outright identical, predecessors.

DYG

Wank. Wank. Wank. What moronic grandising drivel. There was something called Hong Kong cinema long before Tarantino. He too would say the same.

Michael

What an embarrassing, ridiculously misinformed article by someone who has no idea what he is talking about. What a disrespectful nonsensical piece by someone who knows nothing about HK cinema and likely hastily cobbled together some points from Wikipedia.

James Chean

The best Hong Kong film Ringo Lam direct .

Jason

And as Vern mentioned, Lam didn’t direct the abysmal Simon Sez (his PRODUCER credit was a consequence of contract, as he was once attached to direct). He actually directed Van Damme in the pretty smart, taut thriller Maximum Risk. Try IMDB for fact-checking!

Jason

This is stunningly wrongheaded. First, as Tom mentioned above, to be as dismissive of City on Fire and Ringo Lam as you are suggests such breathtaking ignorance that I almost don’t know why I’m responding, since nothing intelligent is going to get through to you.

Second, this is such old news that Film Threat covered the "scandal" back when it was an ACTUAL PRINT RAG…when Dogs had only just been released.

Finally, anyone in these comments who thinks Tarantino didn’t see City on Fire is utterly WRONG, because he’s spoken about his affinity for the film and how he restaged its finale for Dogs.

I hope you didn’t get paid for this, Mr. Cwik – or maybe you should have been, since it momentarily drew my attention to a site I was not aware of until now. Great job…?

mike leeder

well QT has admitted to the influence of CITY ON FIRE, on Reservoir Dogs…. the same way John Woo.borrowed liberally from.TRUE COLOURS OF A HERO for BETTER TOMORROW and Le SAMURAI for THE KILLER, and admits to it too….same way Ringo remade Peter Weir’s WITNESS as WILD SEARCH with Chow Yun-fatt…yrs QT borrowed key moments from COF and The Killing and Taking of Pelham 123 (the original) but i guess its much more exploitative journalism to imply QT just ripped off someone else beat for beat… i interviewed Ringo Lam years ago where he was very happy about QT riffing on City on fore, and said how he riffed on Witness for Wild Search and.how all film makers borrow from eachother

come on Indie Wire, you turning into TMZ with articles like this

Chuck Stephens

Well, apparently it can.

Vern

Thanks for going in depth on this topic, rather than the usual "RESERVOIR DOGS is exactly like CITY ON FIRE" horse shit I unfortunately had to expect when clicking here. One huge correction: SIMON SEZ is not directed by Ringo Lam. It’s at least credited to Kevin Elders, the guy that wrote the IRON EAGLE movies. Maybe you’re confusing Lam with Tsui Hark and SIMON SEZ with DOUBLE TEAM? Except in that case, yes, I *do* really dig it.

Mike White

This is just garbage. There’s no way Tarantino even saw that movie.

Johan

Bullshit. QT didnt watch City in Fire untill ywars after Dogs was out,

Tom

Has this writer seen any of Ringo Lam’s other films? He is incredibly dismissive of a director who has made films such as "Full Alert," "Prison on Fire," "School on Fire," "Victim," "Burning Paradise," and "Wild Search" amongst others, films that can be dark social critiques, poetic and viscerally entertaining action films. So no, "City on Fire" is not Lam’s only good film – the writer might want to research a little harder next time before making such generalisations.

Chuck Stephens

Could this possibly be any more moronic?

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