If Michael Mann’s Heat were instead-directed by the late Tony Scott, you have a good idea what to expect from Firestorm. Depending on your personal tastes, this can be seen as a good thing or bad thing, because subtlety and restraint were never part of Scott’s vocabulary. You won’t find either of those qualities here either. This violent Hong Kong action epic, directed by Alan Yuen, is as unabashedly bombastic, in-your-face and over-the-top as they come, which ultimately ends-up being a good thing. Hey, if you are going to draw your primary inspiration from one of the most revered films of the 90s, you might as well go whole-hog and crank everything up to 11.
Firestorm has a gang of thieves who commit daring robberies of armored cars in broad daylight in the middle of Hong Kong. The story primarily focuses on two men on opposite ends of the law. Lui (Andy Lau) is a police inspector, so desperate to nail this gang that he resorts to ethically-questionable tactics; Bong (Gordon Lam), just released from prison, is torn between returning to his old ways and trying to change for the sake of his pregnant girlfriend, Law (Yao Chen), but ultimately falls in with this vicious group of thieves.
Lui and Bong have known each other since their school days. This respectful/antagonistic relationship - a familiar plot device -serves a similar function to the DeNiro/Pacino pairing in Heat…to establish our protagonist isn’t exactly a saint, nor is our antagonist a total demon. The same can’t be said for the rest of Bong’s gang, who are as ruthless as they come, shooting hostages in the head, tossing children from second-story windows and generally unconcerned with the collateral damage inflicted when blasting their way out of stand-offs with police.
But ultimately, despite attempts at creating flawed-yet-empathetic characters, mayhem is the main message here, which isn’t necessarily meant as a criticism. This tightly-wound film features several well-edited action set-pieces, each bigger and more violent than the last, culminating in a climactic showdown on the streets of downtown Hong Kong. This final confrontation, at least a half-hour long, must be seen to be believed. Sure, a lot suspension of disbelief is required, but the nearly-orgasmic level of gunplay, explosions and carnage makes the similar firefight in Heat look like Nerf Gun battle.
On a side note, the film’s synopsis touts a typhoon-level storm approaching Hong Kong, indicating it’s a major part of the story. However, this storm is only fleetingly mentioned in background newscasts and briefly discussed among the gang of thieves (who essentially blow it off…no pun intended). Disaster movie fans should take note: at no point is this storm a factor in anything you see onscreen. But don’t worry, your thirst for urban destruction will be sated through other means.
Ultimately, Firestorm is a hell of a lot of fun, which is all that really matters. Despite its lack of originality, numerous plot holes, sometimes-obvious CGI and tons of hyper-editing, there’s seldom a dull moment, and even a few unexpected surprises (such as the ironic/amusing fate of one of its main characters). If this Hong Kong epic were remade as an American film, I imagine if Tony Scott were alive today, he would be first in line for the chance to direct it. And that would be a good thing.