2015’s Wild City, which marked the end of Ringo Lam’s twelve-year hiatus from directing feature films, was an unremarkable but solid and heartfelt crime thriller, which while nowhere near the artistic heights of the Hong Kong director’s career, was especially heartening when thought of as a lead up to more ambitious films. A bit over a year later (a half-second when compared to that twelve-year wait), Sky on Fire is indeed more ambitious in terms of themes and spectacle, but it’s also oddly underwhelming. Five years ago, Dr. Pan, a scientist who was making major advances in cancer research, died in a possibly criminal fire while he was working in his lab. Now, her protégé Dr. Gao (Zhang Jingchu) and her husband Dr. Tong (Fan Guangyao), under the banner of their pharmaceutical company Sky One, have used his notes to discover a revolutionary cancer-curing medicine, X-stem cells. But the truck carrying the first of these curative cells is hijacked both by the son of Dr. Pan, Ziwan (Zhang Ruoyun), and by Jia (Joseph Chang), a man desperate to save his cancer-stricken sister Jen (Amber Kuo). Caught in the crossfire is Chong (Daniel Wu), the head of security for Sky One, who must take sides as hidden agendas are revealed.
There’s a muddled feel and an odd stop-and-go energy to the first twenty minutes of Sky on Fire ; one assumes at first that these are down to the plot falling into place, but unfortunately, the film never really blossoms into something powerful, moving or thought-provoking. The main issue is that the key characters, while played by a talented cast, are so thinly defined : their often strange, contradictory or counterintuitive behavior is justified mainly through quick and stilted flashbacks. Daniel Wu has become a fine, charismatic actor, and age becomes him, but his character is only given a perfunctory backstory of grief (Chung lost his wife, played by a cameoing Michelle Wai), and thus spends the film looking single-mindedly aimless, a paradox more befuddling than compelling. Zhang Jingchu is one of the best actresses of her generation, but here she’s mostly used as sad window-dressing and occasionally as a dour exposition device. Her character’s bond with Daniel Wu’s yields not a single spark, far from their memorable duet in Derek Yee’s Protégé (2007). Zhang Ruoyun is lightweight in a key role so weakly defined it ends up looking more like a recurring walk-on role. Joseph Chang (apparently dubbed in Cantonese by Soi Cheang) is basically the only vaguely compelling character in the film, because his motivations are so immediate, simple and relatable: finding a cure for his dying sister, played with wounded-doe innocence by Amber Kuo.
And these characters exist in a plot that is quite simple, but made intricate by a gradual unveiling of motivations and backstories, much like Wild City did with much more success. There are overarching themes of science without conscience – this cure for cancer indirectly causes much more death than healing, and its pharmaceutical backers obviously intend to make it an expensive commodity – as well as loss and regain of faith (with fleeting but unmistakable Christian symbolism). But they are constantly undermined by the frustrating proclivity of Ringo Lam’s script to come back to square one every twenty minutes or so: the characters are seemingly stuck in a loop, never evolving or accomplishing anything. In lieu of developments or twists, the script offers only repetitive near-misses, and ends with an apocalyptic conclusion so incongruous and unearned, one half-expects it to turn out to be a dream sequence. Imagine the finale from V for Vendetta finale tacked on at the end of Taken.
Still, if one goes in without the expectations created by the presence of a justly-celebrated director, an A-list cast and portentous themes, it’s possible to enjoy Sky on Fire as a meat-and potatoes thriller, with brisk and hard-hitting action scenes by Cheung Ping Chuen ; nothing memorable, just good old-fashioned car pile-ups, a brisk roof chase and some brutal and grounded hand-to-hand combat. In a way, the film might have more easily overcome its conceptual weaknesses if it had offered wall-to-wall action and coasted on the charisma of a gun-wielding Daniel Wu running after trucks. As it is, there are just too many lulls during which to contemplate the half-baked plot and themes.
Long Story Short : Sky on Fire‘s half-baked script cannot support its portentous themes, and only the charisma of its stars and some fine action scenes keep it barely afloat. **