The most obvious thing ISLAND OF FIRE (1990) has going for it, is its cast : Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Andy Lau, Jimmy Wang Yu, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai. This is, absolutely speaking, one hell of a line-up, but of course at the time Andy Lau, though having been in countless films already, was still more successful as a singer than an actor, Sammo Hung was on the decline after his break-up with the almighty Golden Harvest Studio, Jimmy Wang Yu was nearing his self-imposed exile from films, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai had never had a leading role before. All in all, Jackie Chan was the only member of the cast to truly be at the height of his popularity (a height he has barely left ever since). However, Chan is not the lead here : Leung is, and even he is sidelined for entire chunks of the film. Actually, if there was to be a real leading role here, it would be the island itself, or rather the prison that is on this island.
Leung plays a cop who provokes his own imprisonment in order to investigate the possible recruiting of assassins among the inmates. Hung is an inmate who constantly tries to escape in order to see his son on the outside. Wang is a kingpin of sorts among the prisoners. Chan is a gambler who gets incarcerated for accidentally killing the brother of a club owner who has mob ties. Lau is the club owner, who in turn provokes his own incarceration in order to get revenge on Chan. Not as complicated as it might sound.
By reading this little plot summary, you might start to understand why I said the leading role is that of the prison. The focus of the film keeps shifting from a character to another, sometimes cleverly weaving their stories together, but the prison remains. It acts not so much as a place of confinement, but rather as a magnet. It is the kind of prison you could find in films throughout the eighties. Maximum cruelty, minimum realism, kind of like in Stallone’s LOCK UP. This is a prison where prisoners are brought outside to work on roads, and you can escape simply by pretending you need to take a piss and stealing a car. And of course, fights are organised every week, on which the wardens bet with a greedy smile. Still, Taiwanese director Chu Yen-Ping (lately a yes-man for superstar Jay Chou), ratchets up the tension nicely with a series of violent altercations and ballsy staring contests.
The cast is, of course, very good. Sammo Hung Kam Bo is the standout : his constant attempts to see his son are always on the verge of comedy, but with an undercurrent of emotion and a sense of loss that Hung, a very underrated actor indeed, portrays beautifully. Jackie Chan, despite a ridiculous haircut, tackles here one of his first entirely serious roles, though not much is at stakes in his storyline. Jimmy Wang Yu radiates charisma as a dragon-tattooed badass, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai is simply good in the straightforward hero role. As for Andy Lau, he just hasn’t got much to do, though he has a nice knife-fight scene against Chan.
The fight scenes are somewhat scarce, contrary to what you might expect from a film starring Chan and Hung, and they don’t really choose their side between knockabout slapstick a la Chan and a more gritty and realistic style. Likewise, the film never chooses whether it wants to be a “life in a prison” film, an “undercover cop” film, or a “heroic bloodshed” film (the final action scene is right out of John Woo’s textbook), nor does it manage to marry the three styles together in an efficient way. Still, it has tension, emotion to some degree, and a hell of a cast (didn’t I mention that already ?).
Long story short : An abundance of prison-film clichés and an uneven tone do much to harm ISLAND OF FIRE, but the uniformly excellent (and starry) cast and the tense directing still make it worthwhile. A remake wouldn’t be a bad idea. **1/2