• Warning: Spoilers
    You know going into a Dante Lam film that you're going to get some hard-hitting action, so it is little surprise that you find your heart racing from one gritty street battle to the next. But what turns out to be an unexpected delight in Dante Lam's latest- "Fire of Conscience"- is how he blends his trademark riveting action sequences with equally gripping character-driven drama into quite possibly one of the most exciting action thrillers we will see this year.

    Just as his award-winning "Beast Stalker" and his classic "Beast Cops", the lead characters in this Dante Lam film are morally ambiguous cops whose sense of right and wrong are questionable. Man (Leon Lai) is a brutish detective haunted by the death of his pregnant wife two years ago. Obsessed with apprehending her killer, his personal missions of vengeance chasing after pickpockets, shaving their heads and bringing them to the one eyewitness of the crime haven't exactly endeared him with the rest of the police force. But he believes less in the justice system than his own brand of justice, so he has no qualms brutalizing his suspects and torturing confessions out of them.

    On the other hand, Serious Crimes Unit investigator Kee (Ritchie Jen) appears to be Man's direct opposite- a by-the-book, principled, high-flying police officer whose career has hit an unexpected roadblock for reasons that you'd only find out very late into the film. Their fortuitous meeting occurs in the wake of the murder of a prostitute, the investigation of which sparks off a whole series of events that will see their fates gradually intertwined with each other in the days to come.

    It doesn't take much to guess that Kee isn't the upright cop he appears to be, or that Man and Kee will eventually find themselves on opposite sides of the law and go mano-a-mano against each other. But the film would have you believe that Man and Kee are just two sides of the same coin- both men aggressive and driven, bearing the same distinct characteristics of their common zodiac sign, the "fire dragon" (hence the title of the film). The difference lies in where they allow that passion within to take them, and the choices they make along the way.

    Thanks to Ng Wai Lun's ambitious screenplay (he also wrote Dante Lam's Beast Stalker and Sniper), both Man and Kee are not drawn simplistically along the lines of good cop-bad cop. Instead, we empathise with Man's despair at his wife's death, but frown at his sadistic methods of grilling his suspects. Likewise, we frown at Kee's ways of greed, but empathise with his predicament that led him astray and also the care and concern he shows towards his fellow partner who has a dying father in the hospital.

    Kudos to Leon Lai and Ritchie Jen for portraying with aplomb their respective larger-than-life characters- sporting the necessary facial hair to look more grizzled, Leon Lai gives an edgy emotional performance that is bound to garner some attention come awards season next year. Next to Lai, Ritchie Jen's composed demeanour belying an undercurrent of menace is a perfect foil. The rest of the cast, including Liu Kai-Chi's single father of a cop and Michelle Ye's tough-as-nails policewoman, are just as engaging in their supporting roles and undoubtedly add to the joy of watching this tautly crafted thriller.

    That's probably the most apt compliment to describe Dante Lam's tight plotting from start to end as he maintains a breathlessly feverish pace that will keep you glued to your seats. Each of the film's action sequences- whether in a restaurant, a narrow staircase, or right in the middle of a busy road in Hong Kong's Central district- display once again Dante's ample flair in the action department. He's also upped the ante this time- not just with bigger and louder guns, but also with more devastating ammunition in the form of hand grenades.

    Indeed, there's never been any doubt that "Fire of Conscience" would bear the trademarks of a Dante Lam film, but this is more than just a standard-issue action film for its multifaceted characters which draw you in with their own moral dilemmas. The success of "Beast Stalker" must undeniably have inspired Dante Lam to make films that go beyond the bullets and smoke to explore the people behind the guns, their motivations when they pull the trigger, and ultimately that fire within their hearts- a passion that can both inspire and destroy, as the movie so aptly describes.

    • moviexclusive.com