The vast, storied world of Hong Kong cinema has its fair share of important names. John Woo, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To. Perhaps less known, at least to those not totally immersed in HK cinema, is Ringo Lam. Lam probably got his big break with 1987’s City on Fire, a hugely influential film that went on to inspire Reservoir Dogs. Since City on Fire, Lam’s settled into a fairly steady stream of output, including a small handful of American films in the 90s (one of those was 1999 Dennis Rodman vehicle Simon Sez, but let’s not hold that against him). After a break of a few years, Lam recently returned to the director’s chair with Wild City, an archetypal HK thriller that isn’t out to reinvent the genre but still entertains, and could easily serve as a great introduction to what HK movies are all about.
Louis Koo headlines as T-Man, a former cop turned bartender who offers an extremely drunk patron a place to crash, only to find out he got more than he bargained for. The young woman, it seems, has a suitcase full of cash in the trunk of her car, an intended bribe from her lawyer boyfriend in a deal that went south. Now the woman is on the run from a gang of mainland gangsters, and has only T-Man and his scruffy step brother Siu-Hung to look after her.
In stark contrast to the often labyrinthine plots of a lot of other recent HK thrillers like Johnnie To’s excellent Drug War, the feature that seems to define Wild City the most is the “straightforward-ness” of its narrative. There’s a girl in trouble, a suitcase full of cash, two brothers, a gang of baddies and that’s all we really need to get off to the races. No complex double or triple-crosses, intricate political subterfuge or really anything more complex than a set of immediate stakes.
Likewise, the film’s message, such as it is, is very straightforward: money corrupts. Money is figuratively and literally at the center of Wild City, a corrupting force leading good men down bad paths. In opposition to this on the film’s moral spectrum is family, a force that unifies where money divides. Really, Wild City is about two families that find themselves in opposition. On the one hand, you have the two brothers and their mother/step-mother. T-Man, the older and more responsible brother is forced to look out for his more reckless and irresponsible sibling, which leads to some simmering tension that informs a lot of their interactions.
But across the figurative court from them are the antagonists, a gang of mainland Chinese gangsters who’ve formed into an ersatz, and closely knit, family unit. This makes the conflict between the two groups interesting enough to make up for the fairly simple plotting. Blackie and his gang are certainly bad people, but the sense of community among the group of displaced toughs keeps three dimensional enough to be interesting as foils for our protagonists.
Of course, Wild City also compensates for its narrative simplicity with an abundance of style. Hong Kong fans will find Wild City‘s stylistic indulgences fairly familiar, with lens flairs and weird filters and color corrections galore. It never gets boring from a formal perspective, and behind the flashy visuals there’s the pervading sense of a practiced hand behind the camera.
Lam keeps the action somewhat sparse, instead driving things forward with a slow-burn urgency, though that doesn’t mean the film is above the occasional chase scene every once in a while. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Hong Kong movie without a spectacular, show-stopping ending, and Wild City certainly delivers on that front. But in a sense, the film might have held up better in the long run with a smaller, less bombastic ending. Without giving too much away, things escalate fairly heavily for the film’s ending, with a (somewhat superfluous and questionably executed) explosion, followed by a slightly dodgy looking car chase. In more than a couple ways, it feels like a concession to genre conventions. Of course, it isn’t as spectacular and insane as the literally earth-shaking finale to 2015’s Firestorm, or the massive hospital shootout of Johnnie To’s recent Three, but things still suddenly start exploding with alarming ease, and it’s hard not to ask if any of it really adds much to what was already a fine thriller.
And end of the day, that’s what Wild City is: a fine, tense, well-acted and staged little Hong Kong thriller in the classic mold. You don’t spend half the time trying to catch up on what’s going on, so you can just let yourself get into the interesting and well-crafted characters and consistent sense of tension. Because of this, it’s a pretty good film to use to try and introduce someone to Hong Kong thrillers without throwing something too complex, and potentially overwhelming at them. It isn’t particularly challenging or deep, but as we’ve discussed here before, sometimes a movie doesn’t need to be in order to be worth a look.
You should watch it if:
-You’re trying out Hong Kong cinema for the first time and want a solid, accessible example of the genre
You should avoid it if:
-You’re an old hand at Hong Kong movies and need something with a bit more depth and complexity