Island of Fire [火燒島] (1991)
AKA Island On Fire, The Prisoner, The Burning Island
Starring Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Tou Chung-Hua, Andy Lau, Jimmy Wang Yu, Yeung Hung, Jack Kao, Tu Fu-Ping, Chang Kuo-Chu, O Chun-Hung, Elsie Yeh Chuan-Chen, Chan Yin-Yu
Directed by Chu Yen-Ping
Island of Fire is such an oddly structured movie. It boasts a fantastic, all-star cast, but the way the story is crafted the characters never really come together to form a cohesive movie. Each character’s story could have been its own movie, but since this was a low-budget production hoping to capitalize on its cast, they just threw everything they had into it and hoped for the best. And by “everything they had,” I mean a bunch of recycled prison movie stuff, mostly from Cool Hand Luke.
The film begins with Wang Wei (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), a cop who witnesses the murder of his father-in-law. The culprit tries to drive away in his getaway car, but it explodes as soon as he turns the key. While investigating the crime and who this mysterious assassin was, the detectives discover that the man was a prisoner declared dead a little while back. So how does a dead inmate get out of jail to murder someone? Well, that’s what Wang Wei sets out to uncover by getting himself thrown into the prison.
Before I go any further, I want to state for the record that this is a promising setup. This could have made for a good movie. In the case of Island of Fire, this particular plot thread is not explored or mentioned again until minute 109 (out of 124). In the meantime, three other inmates are progressively given the spotlight. First we explore the escape attempts of Liu Hsi-Chia (Sammo Hung). Next, Da Chui (Jackie Chan) pops in to kill the brother of a triad boss in self-defense, so, of course, he finds himself in the prison. Meanwhile, Wang Wei’s cellmate, Chu (Tou Chung-hua), is trying to have his case re-tried with the help of his Grandma.
The film continues alternating between these stories, but none of them really connect with one another in any traditional way (or even make sense on their own), leaving the film without much of a drive to keep the audience interested. Perhaps this is more true to real prison life, where everyone is the star of their own story, but this is movie prison so I’d like some semblance of cohesiveness in the characters. Also in the mix are Andy Lau as the triad boss, and Jimmy Wang Yu as some kind of vague prison gang leader whose role I didn’t particularly understand.
I expected the mediocre prison drama, and I expected the low-budget filmmaking, but what I didn’t expect was any kind of action. There’s not a lot, especially by the standards of the cast’s reputation, but there are a couple of short fights and the finale is — shockingly — an attempt to deliver a John Woo-inspired gun-based sequence. This scene of heroic bloodshed really comes out of nowhere, and it even negates entire plot lines of the film! Wasn’t Andy Lau furious with Jackie for killing his brother, to the point of having himself thrown into prison so that he can kill him with his bare hands? Well, prepare to see him put all that aside to work with Jackie in the finale! WTF.
The Jackie fights are theoretically good (and easily the high points of the movie for me), but the camera work and direction on these fights is so horrible that it nearly kills any enjoyment I got out of them. With the skills, talent and experience of the performers, the fights should be pretty simple to film. Instead, director Chu Yen-Ping provides conclusive proof that camera placement and editing are integral to the success of the Hong Kong action film. The moments are captured, but the Chu’s filmmaking does absolutely nothing to enhance or even work with the momentum of the action. If I’d never seen excellent action shot in a 1.85:1 ratio, the work in Island of Fire would make me think it was impossible without a wider frame.
The flow to the action in Island of Fire is completely non-existent, making the knife fight between Jackie and Andy Lau unintelligible and frustrating, even though Jackie’s jumping through railings and doing some genuinely impressive work. Careful planning is also a necessary component of the Hong Kong action film, so maybe this low-budget production just didn’t invest the proper time or money in getting anything right. In any case, even with perfect editing and camerawork, the choreography is nothing special, although it’s interesting to see Jackie fight with a focus on grit and brutality instead of his usual playfulness.
Island of Fire was the second and final film that Jackie Chan did as a favor to Jimmy Wang Yu for getting him out of the Lo Wei contract. Both films were directed by Chu Yen-Ping, and as different as this is to Fantasy Mission Force, they both share an odd, “throw in everything you can think of” methodology. Neither film works, but they are both somewhat interesting because of it. I definitely don’t recommend seeking this one out, but I will note that I’ve seen a few positive reviews so if you dig episodic prison movies perhaps you’ll like this one!
And just for the record: I watched the original Taiwanese version, which runs roughly 20–30 minutes longer than the HK or US edits. The differences are outlined on the wonderful Movie Censorship website.
Next up in this chronological journey through the films of Jackie Chan is The Twin Dragons from directors Ringo Lam & Tsui Hark! Two Jackies! Two great HK directors!
Two reviews! One review! See ya then!