A group of thieves rob a jewelry store while wielding machetes. The robbery goes bad (as all movie robberies must) and an undercover cop named Chow (Chow Yun Fat) starts thinking that he might be in over his head. When he gets recruited for another heist, he ends up befriending one of the thieves (Danny Lee). The robbery gets botched (again) and Chow likes his new buddy so much that he stops a bullet for him during the robbery. In the end, the thieves hole up in a shack, which pretty quickly gets surrounded by cops who are quite unsympathetic to Chow’s real identity.
It has been said by (far too many) critics that Quentin Tarantino ripped off this flick when he made Reservoir Dogs. Allow me to set the record straight once and for all. Reservoir Dogs contains the same essential plot as City on Fire (an undercover cop gets embroiled in a jewel heist gone wrong) and features a similar Mexican standoff scene with various thieves pointing their guns at each other while the undercover cop (Fat) sits on the floor with a bullet in his gut, but that’s about it.
Director Ringo Lam’s approach is totally different than Tarantino’s. Lam tells his story in a straightforward manner, concentrating more on Chow’s story and how he fights against not only gangsters, but disrespectful detectives. He also turns the robbery into an action set piece. In Reservoir Dogs, Tarantino is more concerned about the robbery’s aftermath and uses flashbacks to flesh out the other thieves and never once shows the actual heist. Also, City ends with the thieves getting shot by the police and Dogs ends with them shooting each other.
I must admit that Tarantino’s flick is vastly superior, but City on Fire is a decent Fat flick when taken on its own merits. Fat is in fine form, giving an excellent performance and he has a great rapport with Lee. (The duo would go on to star in John Woo’s seminal action film, The Killer, two years later.) City on Fire is no Reservoir Dogs though. While the first half of the film is sluggishly paced (Tarantino wisely nixed the lovey dovey subplot from his movie), the action scenes still have a kick to them (there’s a knife through the hand and some pretty gory gunshot wounds), even if they are few and far between.
Thanks to Reservoir Dogs’ immense reputation, fans of that movie will definitely want to check out City on Fire as more of a curiosity piece than anything. It’s got its moments, yet it never fully works as a whole. Ultimately, if Tarantino wasn’t accused of plagiarizing this movie, I doubt if anyone would’ve given a shit about City on Fire. It’s an OK action flick, but it’s not like it’s Hard Boiled or anything.