Dante Lam's Fire of Conscience opens with a bravura sequence. The camera floats through multiple black-and-white frozen frames of incidents that set off the film: a group of armed robbers open fire on a policeman in broad daylight, the police announce a major drug raid, and a prostitute services a customer. The opening is not only bravura in its technical accomplishment, but also in how it efficiently sets in motion a complex story connecting all these three incidents together. Ironically, the rest of the film lacks the very efficiency that opening scene manages to achieve.
In his return to the "gritty detective with a dark past" genre following The Beast Stalker, Dante Lam and screenwriter Jack Ng have upped the storytelling ante with an ambitious action drama that delivers an ambiguous theme about human nature. Their tools are two very different cops: Kee (Richie Ren) is a career police inspector who seeks the help of Manfred (Leon Lai), a fellow cop whose own career has turned into a desperate search for his wife's killer and, as his beard indicates, a shaving razor.
Kee is looking for a cell phone with important information that was stolen by street thugs, and Manfred, being the hardened street detective, is the only one who can help. However, their collaboration begins a series of incidents that slowly unravels Kee's complex plan. Meanwhile, a prostitute has been killed, and Manfred's rough underling Cheung-On (Liu Kai-Chi) has to hide the fact that he may be the last person to see her alive, sending Manfred's life into further complications.
Jack Ng's screenplay (from Dante Lam's story) tries to combine the three incidents in the opening with its two major characters into a coherent whole, but that's apparently still not enough to fulfill Lam's ambitions. Few characters get ignored in Fire of Conscience, from bombmaker Xiao-Rong (Wang Baoqiang) to Manfred's underlings May (Michelle Ye) and Hoi (Wilfred Lau), not to mention Kee's right-hand man Sam (Charles Ying). Even Kee's girlfriend Ellen (Vivian Hsu, in a truly thankless role) has some kind of backstory that affects Kee's motives. However, added together it all becomes too much exposition and not enough storytelling.
When the film does attempt to move forward, it does so in the form of character reveals. By the end, however, the excess character development weighs down the story, and the wait for the inevitable showdown between the two leading men simply becomes dull. Lam and Ng's focus on character in an action film is admirable, but they do so by sacrificing pacing and story progression. Worst of all, many of the characters don't contribute much to the story or Lam's intended theme.
The film's Chinese title - which translates to "Fire Dragon" - refers to the annual Tai Hang Fire Dragon Festival, during which a dragon made out of incense is paraded around the district of Tai Hang after it supposedly helps to rid the neighborhood of a plague. The Fire Dragon, which makes an appearance in the finale, is supposed to be the force that gets rid of the "plagues" brewing inside the hearts of the characters. However, the film is too involved in its numerous characters and labyrinth-like story to actually realize its intended theme, which is ultimately expressed via a voiceover at the film's close.
Fire of Conscience is far more effective on a superficial level. It looks great as an action film, as cinematographer Charlie Lam and Tse Chung-To constantly keep the camera moving. Chin Kar-Lok's action scenes are also well-designed, especially in an explosive shootout in a restaurant. However, the action also possesses a been-there, done-that vibe, as Lam resorts to gruesome make-up effects to heighten their impact. One graphic scene even shows a woman's contracting genitals after giving birth - an impressive but totally unnecessary effect that demonstrates how far Lam is willing to go to get a reaction out of his audience.
Also working on a superficial level is Leon Lai, who has to don a beard to express his character's grief. To enhance his character's brooding, Lai lends nearly no emotion to his performance and ends up coming off even more wooden than usual. However, he then expresses himself using what he learned at the Liu Kai-Chi School of Acting, swinging into overacting mode without actually moving his face. It's a misguided performance that's supposed to show a darker side of the pop star, but instead ends up proving why he should stay away from dark characters. Far more effective is co-star Richie Jen, whose composed performance fits the deceptive nice guy character of his scheming cop, and proves far more effective in comparison.
Despite its flaws, Fire of Conscience is an easy film to recommend for a night at the movies, as its technical achievements play very well in a large cinema with a loud audio system. However, the film doesn't have a strong enough story to carry it beyond the cinema, and could potentially be a far duller experience on the small screen. The Beast Stalker was effective despite its numerous characters because the story was more focused, creating enough tension to make the characters and their fates worth caring about. Fire of Conscience is by no means a bad film - it's just an ambitious and misguided one. (Kevin Ma, 2010)