Although many Hong Kong action fans have criticized Quentin Tarantino for stealing the premise of "Reservoir Dogs" from Ringo Lam's 1987 hit "City on Fire", those accusations do a disservice not only to Tarantino--who vastly improved upon every scene he "borrowed"--but also to Lam and his charismatic star, Chow Yun-fat, whose talents were evident long before they were lured to Hollywood. "City on Fire" may seem overly familiar now, with its standard undercover-cop-befriending-the-bad-guys scenario, but it remains a first-rate example of Hong Kong urban-action drama, and as a star vehicle for Chow it's a guaranteed crowd-pleaser. The shootouts and chase scenes are as good as anything Hollywood offered in the late '80s, and the chaotic environs of Hong Kong provide an exotic backdrop that further enhances the routine plot line.
Chow plays the undercover cop, still agonizing over his betrayal of a criminal friend during a previous case; when he's asked to infiltrate a gang of violent thieves, his rapport with one of the gangsters threatens the integrity of his assignment. While his superiors battle among themselves (one protects Chow, the other pursues him), director Lam keeps it all ticking along with surefire pacing and an amusing subplot involving Chow's dissatisfied fiancée. The film is fascinating to watch for its obvious precedents to "Reservoir Dogs" (including a climactic "Mexican standoff" between the untrusting criminals), but it's best appreciated as a showcase for Chow, who's instantly captivating from the moment he appears onscreen. (Note: Disney's DVD release of "City on Fire" greatly improves upon the poorly translated subtitles of all previous DVD releases.) "--Jeff Shannon"