Revisiting Ringo Lam’s 5 Most Essential Films

Photo: Brilliant Idea Group

History favors a clean, simple narrative, which can sometimes mean shuffling contemporaries to the back in order to bring a Great Man to the fore. Posterity remembers Ingmar Bergman as the director who brought Swedish cinema to the American mainstream, while his countryman Vilgot Sjöman remains little-known outside cinephile circles; entry-level classes teach Akira Kurosawa as the standard-bearer for Japan’s mid-century output, and save Yasujiro Ozu for advanced courses.

Too frequently has “heroic bloodshed” cinema, the action boom that doused Hong Kong in fake blood during the ’80s and ’90s, been (hard-)boiled down to John Woo, leaving the rest of the movement to the hard-core VHS-trawlers. But last week, the great Chinese filmmaker Lam Ling-tung — better known by his chosen name, Ringo — died at age 63, giving sad occasion to revisit the work of a true genius never granted the crossover popularity of his peers. He, too, told stories of cops and criminals with a stylized, hyperviolent aesthetic that made him an idol to Quentin Tarantino and the generation of genre obsessives that followed in his wake. His work is singly his own, however, generally eschewing the dove-flutters and flying-pistol-kicks of the gun fu school pioneered by Woo. Lam situated himself one small notch closer to reality, couching a cynical perspective on inner-city society and law enforcement within an often outrageous style informed by his background in comedy and early training as an actor.

For those neophytes looking to learn more about Lam and his filmography, Vulture has put together a cursory primer on five of his finest efforts. These films track the development of a career that was not without its snags, but could always be relied on to deliver at least a few flashes of the originality, exuberance, and innovative firearm usage that couldn’t have come from anyone else.

City on Fire (1987)
Lam landed his first feature gig when director Leong Po-chih stormed off the set of Esprit d’Amour and the studio needed someone on the double to complete the remaining two-thirds of the film. He continued his inauspicious beginnings with a few for-hire jobs that kept food on the table, until he took the reins of the Aces Go Places franchise in its fourth installment and scored an unexpected blockbuster. His producer Karl Maka was so pleased that he gave Lam free rein to cook up whatever he wanted to do next from scratch, and Lam returned the favor by delivering a fuming exemplar of the Hong Kong shoot-‘em-up.

Tarantino got the idea for Reservoir Dogs from Lam’s knotty double-agent thriller, except that Lam starts and ends with our man on the inside instead of keeping the mystery up in the air. That would be Ko Chow, portrayed by Chow Yun-fat, coming in hot off his star-making Woo collaboration A Better Tomorrow and ready to cement his reputation as the coolest guy on the silver screen. His slick shades, immaculate kicks, and unflappable demeanor made him a larger-than-life figure in a film that keeps its vantage point street-level, though so much of Lam’s M.O. has permeated the pop-culture atmosphere that just about everything feels classic. The climactic Mexican standoff hits like the chorus to a song you never realized you’ve only heard covered.

Undeclared War (1990)
City on Fire brought Lam success with critics and audiences alike, an instant calling-card movie that he promptly expanded into franchise-hood with Prison on Fire. With the exception of the more recent 2016 feature Sky on Fire, these spinoffs (they share no characters, just a jaded streak) were cranked out hastily and on the cheap, and they all served mostly to remind audiences of Lam’s superior original. His next big swing came when he tested the international waters, tapping a handful of English-speakers for the cast of his foray into espionage Undeclared War. Casting global favorite Olivia Hussey and ’80s mainstay Vernon Wells was supposed to send a message that Lam was prepared to spread his influence across the Pacific, and while he would indeed make it to America, the path wouldn’t be so smooth.

Lam frames the film as a relatively by-the-book buddy-cop case file, mismatching a CIA flack (Peter Liapis, credited here as Peter Lapis) with a Hong Kong inspector (Lam’s frequent muse Danny Lee). They’ve got to resolve their cultural differences in time to root out the terrorists hiding among a group of revolutionaries; if there was any justice in this world, Lam would’ve gotten a slice of the Rush Hour royalties. He was able to hold fast to his guiding beliefs about corruption and moral compromise in our most trusted institutions, and mounted some more technically audacious set pieces than in his more modestly budgeted earlier work. But the English-language bits felt stilted and unnatural, and his once-healthy box-office returns had started to slip. The film did not quite make the splash its director had hoped for, and still he forged onward, churning out new features at a two-per-year clip. The prevailing feeling of Undeclared War, then, is one of restlessness — of a director eager to get his hands on the money to do more, more, more.

Twin Dragons (1992)
John Woo’s total-eclipse shadow also cast itself over the great Tsui Hark, another madman of the Hong Kong school who lit up the ’90s with semi-automatic gunfire. Big-league Asian studio Golden Harvest took a shine to Lam after he shepherded their Touch and Go through production in 1991, and called him back for what was to be a summit of internationally renowned talents: a film co-directed by Lam and Hark, and starring none other than Jackie Chan, the biggest man in Chinese film. The division of labor fell along straight tonal lines, with Lam handling the martial arts sequences while neo-Chaplin Hark worked the zanier story interludes of the film. They must have found some chemistry as like-minded artists because a risky project that had every excuse to feel segmented or disjointed miraculously does not. (Note the fractured Triangle from 2007 for comparison, in which Lam and co-directors Tsui Hark and Johnnie To didn’t even share their scripts with one another.)

Chan, riding high on the ubiquity of his Police Story series, pulled double duty as a pair of twins  separated at birth. (It’s your standard Property Brothers dichotomy, one brother an urbane, refined classical musician, and the other a down-and-dirty street racer with a sensitive side.) Lam gave his serious-face a rest, returning to the seat-of-your-pants kinetic levity of his earlier work in a series of experiments with a prime specimen. There’s a sense that he wanted to see how far he could push Chan, returning the star to a traditional kung fu less reliant on clowning and placing greater emphasis on sheer agility, speed, and strength. Lam’s always at his best when meeting a challenge posed for him, and he took Chan’s presence on set like a dare to pull off more.

Maximum Risk (1996)
Lam soldiered onward in China (a hit, a flop, then another hit) until he was able to realize his ambitions to break into Tinseltown. Jean-Claude Van Damme provided the unlikely conduit between Hong Kong and Hollywood, a Belgian ass-kicker who embodied a perfect synthesis of Eastern grace and Western brawn. Van Damme had introduced Woo to the United States a few years earlier on their Hard Target, and Lam wanted a piece of both the brutality and the ballet that he saw onscreen. He got his wish via this testosterone-fueled cat-and-mouse game nodding to Lam’s previous films by returning to the unknown-twin plot device, with Van Damme playing a French cop and the Russian mobster everyone keeps mistaking him for. For better and occasionally for worse, it is a pure, unadulterated JCVD performance.

Again, Lam was at his best when testing the limits of the professionals placed in his charge. The script never achieved the blood-boil lunacy of some comparable Chinese-American crossovers, but Lam put Van Damme through his paces. In one standout showdown, Van Damme dispatches an assassin in a claustrophobic elevator, teeth gritted and muscles oily. Other scenes would demand more of the actor in terms of movement, but not dramatic commitment; Van Damme looks like he’s about to rip his attacker’s head clean off, veins popping out of his biceps and forehead in a flourish that cannot be faked. For a while, it sometimes seemed like Lam made his films as good as they needed to be, and no more. Bring him in for a fly-by-night franchise assignment, and that’s what you’ll get. Give him a bit of A-list firepower and allow him the room to explore its potential, though, and the man will come through.

Full Alert (1997)
Some Lam critics believe Lam undermined the first half of his career with the second. A few more undistinguished jobs back in Hong Kong, a trek through the forbidding direct-to-DVD wilds with Jean-Claude Van Damme, and a bungled comeback (2016’s Sky on Fire was far from the return to form we’d been praying for) left Lam in tarnished esteem, though loyalists preferred to remember him as he was. The last time he really excelled as the auteur viewers knew he could be — equal parts inventor, orchestrator, and maverick — was an elite battle of wits and wills on par with Michael Mann’s best. The Hong Kong school had entered a feedback loop of influence with Mann, each liberally drawing from and building on the other, and here, Lam translates the “I hate you, but dammit, I respect you” macho-ism from Heat into Cantonese.

Though there’s also a wisp of Shakespeare in Lam’s screenplay, co-penned with Lau Wing-kin, imbuing everyone’s actions with thundering cry-to-the-heavens momentousness. A bombing expert (Francis Ng) and an area cop (Lau Ching-wan) lock horns, but the crook’s girlfriend (a capable Amanda Lee) getting caught in the middle raises the conflict to a fever pitch. Like any good Bard play, the curtain closes on a stage full of corpses, and more to the point, Lam ensures that his life-or-death stakes have the palpable urgency of life and death.

Full Alert played to Lam’s strongest suit not by freeing him from realism but by pushing him ever-so-slightly closer to it. The director would rather accentuate the emotions of his films than tinker with their laws of physics, saving the extreme highs for the performances while keeping his own formal nose to the grindstone. He knew how to measure restraint and control against his more flamboyant visual tendencies, a self-awareness that kept him on the festival circuit for life while so many others petered out into obscurity. With each new film, he calibrated a bit more finely, learning and adjusting from the last. Some saw this as a man’s attempt to rebottle the lightning of his early triumph, but take a few steps back and it more closely resembles maturation. Lam spent much of his career ostensibly doing the same thing over and over again, but he did it differently each time. Lam was always learning, moving onward, asking more of himself and of us.

Revisiting Ringo Lam’s 5 Most Essential Films